Tag Archives: The Ax

Review: The Hook

Wayne said, “Let me tell you the world we live in now.  It’s the world of the computer.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“People don’t make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions.” Wayne leaned closer.  “Let me tell you what’s happening to writers.”

“Wayne,” Bryce said gently, “I am a writer.”

“You’ve made it,” Wayne told him.  “You’re above the tide, this shit doesn’t affect you.  It affects the mid-list guys, like me.  The big chain bookstores, they’ve each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don’t order more than thirty-five hundred.  So there’s thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand.”

Bryce said, “There’s only one way for that to go.”

As has been made evident many times in the past here, I enjoy trying to guess which past works of fiction might have helped inspire whatever Westlake opus I am reviewing at a given moment.  You may not necessarily agree with my guesses, but we certainly agree that’s what they are, and no doubt I’ve been wrong sometimes.  The exercise is, nonetheless, highly pleasurable to me.  Sometimes Mr. Westlake deprives me of that speculative pleasure by making his debt to another writer so blatant and unequivocal that it scarcely seems worth the mentioning.

As is the case with this book, but since Valerie Sayers (at that time the author of  five novels and a professor of English, at Notre Dame no less) completely failed to mention that debt in her well-written and somewhat condescending review for the New York Times, I might as well get it out there, just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not a Hitchcock buff, Prof. Sayers?  I won’t even inquire about Highsmith.  Why does the Times so frequently choose non-mystery authors to review mystery books?  A mystery in itself.  Perhaps they confused her with Dorothy?  An idle whimsy, never mind.

Now in all fairness, maybe Sayers (a South Carolinian of Irish Catholic descent, out of the Flannery O’Connor school, and that’s all fine by me) thought the similarity was too obvious to mention as well, or she figured all genre lit is derivative. (Southern Gothic isn’t a genre, you see–it’s a subgenre.  Entirely different.)  Or maybe she didn’t want to sound like she was crying plagiarism when all she really wanted was to deride Westlake’s shallow characterization and over-conceptualized plotting. But I strongly suspect she never made the Highsmith connection at all.  Maybe if there’d been a tennis match or a carousel in Westlake’s book?  Oh, that was mean.

It is not plagiarism, in and of itself, for one writer to react to another.  There is no writer worth talking about who does not do this habitually.  With her own book, Highsmith was clearly reacting to Dreiser, not to mention Dostoevsky (and they were all reacting to Poe). Westlake might have been a bit less careful here than he would have been had Highsmith been alive, and had he not been under the gun a bit (we’ll talk about that), but it’s really no different than his various creative reworkings of Red Harvest.  Less enthusiastic, perhaps–more self-conscious–an older man’s book.

A summary online search reveals that pretty much everybody other than Sayers made mention that Mr. Westlake was fishing with a borrowed hook here.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, and it wasn’t something you really could hide, from anyone who knew the genre at all.  You’re supposed to see the influence, think about it, what it means, compare and contrast.

Strange that Sayers would say in her review that the story Westlake tells here isn’t about character, when it’s riffing on the work of a writer who virtually drowns you in character, after first hitting you with an oar, and throwing you over the side.  Highsmith’s morbid missives take place more or less entirely in the heads of one or several people, expressing to us what seems to be their every waking thought (without going full stream of consciousness, like Mr. Joyce and his many imitators), which makes her work, in equal measure, fascinating and frustrating.  She writes good stories, but she’s primarily interested in aberrant dysfunctional personalities, and she was to all accounts a ranking authority on the subject.

(I’m being territorial here, I’m quite aware, about the Times review, another weakness of mine.  Valerie Sayers is a very fine writer, and has a sharp eye for detail–many trustworthy people have said so, and looking at a sampling of her work, I saw no reason to doubt them.  She got another novel out in 2013. A university press this time; her relationship with Doubleday must have ended by the time she wrote her review of The Hook, for reasons that The Hook might indeed help illumine–she grudgingly concedes Westlake knows his onions when it comes to the world of publishing.

Let me say in passing that a quick glance at her resumé and a general working knowledge of human nature gives me the distinct impression that she would have needed to be a living saint to not have had a hostile reaction to this book, hardly Westlake’s best work, but there’s no indication in her review that she’s ever read anything of his before, even The Ax.  She almost certainly hadn’t read Highsmith, and makes a passel of assumptions no dedicated mystery reader ever would.  If her review is a touch on the jaundiced side, I blame the Times for assigning it to her in the first place.

Westlake was known to write critically of other people’s books as well, often for the Times. I think he was a more perceptive critic than Sayers, but I would, wouldn’t  I?  Scratch a writer, find a backbiter, one of his themes here.  Maybe that entire practice of the literary circular firing squad should be reconsidered.

He could well have gotten a crack at one of hers at some point, except she didn’t publish any books at all between 1996 and 2013–you see my point about how this one might have rubbed her the wrong way.  Her 1996 book doesn’t seem to have gotten a Times review.   Publisher’s Weekly sort of gently panned it.  Her very well-reviewed 2013 offering seems to be a metatextual ode to baseball, certainly an under-covered subject in highbrow lit, and maybe I better get back to Westlake before I drown us all in sarcasm.)

Westlake, to be sure, liked to get at character both more obliquely and concisely than Highsmith did in her novels–he was the master of the thumbnail portrait, particularly when writing as Richard Stark (the part of himself that most resembled Highsmith), and he liked to let the actions of the characters tell us who they were as much as possible, while still reserving the omniscient narrator’s right to sum them up.

But he, like Highsmith, was all about identity, how it changes in response to external stimuli, exigencies beyond the individual’s control, and most of all our relationships with others.  His protagonists usually coped better with the dire situations he put them in than hers did.  Not always, though.

So yes, he took a stripped down plot device from a famous mystery novel (less famous for the book than the movie, the latter of which I’d summarize as a more efficiently told story about far less interesting people, probably true of most Hitchcock adaptations), and I’ll just say it now–he did not improve on the original, any more than The Master of Suspense did.  Did he expect to?  I don’t know.  But he clearly thought there were things he could do with the basic premise that Highsmith did not, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried.

Really, the author he was most obviously copying from here was himself. In my review of The Ax, I referred to an essay Westlake wrote but never published, now featured in The Getaway Car, in which he expressed his frustration that he was having ‘second novel problems’ after publishing scores of novels.  His editors, publishers, agents, spouse, etc, all told him that whatever book came out after The Ax under his own name had to be special, couldn’t be humorous, couldn’t be Dortmunder, couldn’t be some sexy tropical romp. It had to be bloody, hard-edged, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.  In other words, they wanted him to prove The Ax wasn’t a fluke.  (I might personally observe that masterpieces are all flukes, by definition, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation.)

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “This was your greatest commercial and critical success ever; now go do it again.”  Easy for them to say.  So anyway, he had a bunch of ideas, many from past books of his (Cops and Robbers, A Likely Story, others), but he clearly did read (probably reread) Highsmith’s book around this time, and saw so much more clearly than most ever would, what Highsmith was getting at with it–and where she’d gone wrong, because as powerfully unsettling a first novel as it is, it’s also crammed with journeyman blunders that would have made his typing fingers itch, and of course he and Highsmith would not be of a like mind about everything (a serious understatement).  And anyway, a good story is always worth revisiting, updating.

She might have been in his mind then because of her recent death, in 1995.  Since she and Westlake shared a publisher at one point–reportedly not a happy time for Otto Penzler–there’s no way she wasn’t aware of Westlake as a writer, but I don’t know which of her contemporaries she read, or whether she liked any writers other than her patron Graham Greene (I think they mainly just corresponded, probably an aid to friendly relations).  Liking people was never really her thing.  But this novel we’re looking at strongly suggests that writers having issues with other writers is not just a Highsmith thing.  Cats on a hot tin printing press.

I’m not clear on when he was first approached to write a screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground–the film was produced in 2003, but as was frequently the case, they didn’t use much if any of Westlake’s treatment, and went to another writer after him, which would have drawn things out.  So a very good chance this book bears some connection to that project, and the reading he’d have done for it, to get her voice right.

I understand the finished film was terrible, not that I’d know, since it’s damned difficult to find.  I’ve read the novel, which I’m inclined to call the best thing of Highsmith’s I’ve read thus far–not quite as good as The Ax, but it’s close–her career batting average was better than his, but she showed up to play a lot less often.  Anyway, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, and to rank them is a waste of time.

I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train (I do my research), and I get the feeling she spent much of her subsequent career reworking that story, trying to fix it, with varying levels of success. Like Westlake, there were other directions she might have gone in as a writer (see Carol, originally known as The Price of Salt, which got published right away, unlike Westlake’s Memory), but she found a comfortable commercial niche in crime–comfortable for her in ways beyond the commercial. As many had learned before her, and since, you can get away with things in that genre that would raise too many eyebrows in a ‘serious book.’  And make a nice living doing it–she left a substantial estate behind when she died, though no heirs to enjoy it.

I’ve still read relatively little of her, but I’m in the process of emending that deficiency now, and for all her failings as a person, as a writer I consider her one of our very best, a lone sentinel on the ramparts of social alienation, with some troubling insights to share.  A true American original.  Who never much liked Americans either, but it would take too long to list all the subsets of humanity Patricia Highsmith disliked–easier to just say she didn’t like humans.  Least of all herself.  We can all relate, sometimes.

It’ll take me a while to get through her.  She isn’t someone you necessarily want to binge-read.  That could be deleterious to your mental outlook.  Unlike Westlake, whose range of interests and voices and moods could seem unlimited, she was very intently focused on a small handful of themes in her novels, and really just one dark prevailing tone–both a weakness and a strength.  As was Westlake’s need to keep changing up.  Which he was not, as mentioned, permitted to do right after The Ax.  And hence The Hook.  Not as startlingly original as the book that inspired it, or as searingly relevant as the book it was supposed to serve as the informal follow-up to, but a book has to be evaluated on its own merits (if any), so let’s do that now.

Bryce Proctorr, best-selling author, is doing research for a novel at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (not the grand stone ediface with the lions, but the much less distinguished-looking glass & steel structure across 5th Ave. from it).   It seems he’s not doing research for a book he’s working on, so much as harvesting background material on various exotic locales he might set a book in, if he ever got an idea worth pursuing.

His publishing niche seems to be mainly books about foreign intrigue and adventure, espionage, that sort of thing.  Along the lines of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and similarly lucrative.  That most contradictory of creatures, a celebrity scribbler.  One of his many readers recognizes him there, asks for his autograph, and he’s outwardly polite, inwardly bored, happens to him all the time.  Then he recognizes someone.

Wayne Prentice.  Also a novelist, also doing research.  He and Bryce used to know each other, back when both were struggling to make it.  They lost touch, haven’t seen each other in twenty years.  (Valerie Sayers was struck by their last names–‘Proctor and Apprentice?’ she mused.  She somehow didn’t twig to the fact that their first names combine into Bryce Wayne.  Because they will become each other’s alter egos, secret identities.  I mean, seriously, how hard a reference is that to spot, if you’re actually looking for hidden meanings?  I’m sorry to keep bringing this up, it’s just irritating to me.  It was probably more amusing for Westlake.  He got used to the critics underestimating him.  Beneath the radar once more.)

Bryce hesitates before approaching–the perils of wealth and fame–suppose Wayne hits him up for money?–but he’s curious, and they were friends, and he knows he’s not really getting anything professional done at the library–this will be a welcome distraction.  Wayne is likewise both delighted and embarrassed to see Bryce.  They decide to adjourn to a nearby bar, and catch up.  (They aren’t on a train in the late 40’s, when rich people still took trains, so there’s no private drawing room they can chat in.)

As they sip a pair of Bloody Marys (okay, Sayers couldn’t have missed that, no need to belabor the obvious), Wayne opens up about his professional woes.  He’s not researching a novel.  He’s looking up colleges out in the boonies that might hire him to teach; writing, English, whatever.  His career as a novelist has itself become an exercise in fiction.  Nobody will publish him, and a writer who can’t get published isn’t a writer anymore, in his view of things–just a hobbyist.

He explains to Bryce about the bookstore chains, the computers keeping tabs on your sales, the ever-declining sales, leading to less and less assistance and promotion from the publisher, which leads in turn to still further declines in sales.  He was successful enough at first, but the new publishing landscape is merciless to writers who are established enough to command a decent advance, but not famous enough to deliver the big numbers. He got around this for a while through a subterfuge that nobody understood better than Donald E. Westlake.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Wayne said.  “All over this town, people are writing their first novel again.”

It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned, and said “A pen name.”

“A protected pen name.  It’s no good if the publisher knows.  Only the agent knows it’s me.”  Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head.  “It’s a complicated life,” he said.  “Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I’m an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I’m an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent.  If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it’s all done by E-mail.”

“As though it’s E-mail from Milan.”

“Nothing could be easier.”

Bryce laughed.  “They think they’re E-mailing you all the way to Italy and you’re…”

“Down in  Greenwich Village.”

So Wayne Prentice became Tim Fleet, and for a while, Tim Fleet was a successful writer, getting bigger advances than Wayne had recently, because the computer didn’t know him. It wasn’t perfect–no way to do book tours, promotion was problematic, but they were evaluating each book in its own right, not on the basis of past track record.  And eventually the computers caught up, and the same thing happened all over again.  Wayne doesn’t think he can pull the same trick twice.  So he’s worked up a resumé for the colleges, and he’s depressed as all hell about it.

If the goal of fiction is indeed to ‘write what you know,’ Westlake could not be on more solid footing here.  Professionally, he was roughly equi-distant between Bryce and Wayne–never a best-selling author, but well-established enough under his various names that the bookstore computers could only hurt him so much.  He did, in fact, think about taking a teaching job at one point, but more because revenue from script-writing had flagged.  He never (that we know of) had a fully protected pseudonym that even the publisher didn’t know was him, but after the Samuel Holt fiasco, he certainly must have regretted not giving that a try.

Think for a moment, before we proceed, how incredibly difficult it is to make your living as a novelist in the modern age, not that it ever was easy.  Think about how many people are lining up for their share of an ever-shrinking market–because there is still probably nothing anyone dreams of more than saying at some social gathering “My new novel is in stores now.”  It’s the damn 19th century romantic movement.  Used to be nobody of any substance wanted to admit to writing fiction.  Or to being an actor.  Those were the days.

Rich famous people like Bill O’Reilly, who have absolutely no reason to write a novel (and 99.999% of the time, no ability) do so anyway, because it’s just such a neat thing to be able to say.  Admit it–you’ve fantasized about having a book in stores, standing by the book rack, holding a copy with the photograph of you on the back dust jacket exposed, waiting to be recognized.  I certainly have. Everybody who has ever read a novel has thought about writing one. Thankfully, that’s all most of us ever do, but imagine what it’s like for those who choose it as their daily profession, and don’t want to do anything else for the rest of their lives.

A handful will, to be sure, gain such a reputation for this or that book that they can more or less live off of that forever (looking at you, J.D. Salinger, and maybe you too, Miss Harper Lee, which isn’t fair, since neither of you are living at all now), but what kind of life is that?  If you make furniture for a living, if that’s what you love to do, would you be happy knowing that you’re so famous for this one table you produced that you don’t ever need to make another one, and if you ever did, people would just compare it unfavorably to the earlier one?

Let’s say you had this amazing sexual encounter with a stranger once, and you were on fire that night, performed beyond your wildest expectations, and when it was all over, your partner said, with hushed reverence, “Not to insult you, or demean what you and I just shared, but I feel I must leave two hundred dollars on the nightstand.”  And you take the money, not feeling at all dirtied, but rather ennobled, and you treasure that achievement always, as well you should, and maybe it even happens a few times more, though the stack of bills by the bedside keeps shrinking.

Even so–would you then, when asked at a party what you do for a living, declare with pride, “I’m a hooker!”?  Of course not!  Because to do something once, or even several times, is not the same thing as making it your job.  Your job is what you do, day in, day out, until you can’t do it anymore, at which point it is no longer your job, no longer who and what you are.  You are only a novelist for as long as you keep writing novels, with at least a decent chance of getting them published, and the publisher pays you, not the other way around.(Okay, maybe self-publishing on the internet is blurring the lines of this definition a bit–but not much.  Making it easier to kid yourself.  Blogs can work too.)

So Westlake is telling us how he feels about writing–it’s more than just a job to him, it’s an addiction, a craving, a hunger he can only satisfy by getting another book on the shelves of increasingly mercenary booksellers and their cold-hearted computers.   And the difference, as he put it once, between being in or out of print, is being alive or dead.  And what wouldn’t you do to keep that?   To keep your very sense of selfhood alive a while longer?

And even though Bryce Proctorr is a famous wealthy novelist, who hit it big soon enough that he never even heard about any of this computer crap until Wayne told him, he’s got his own identity crisis going on.  He’s in the middle of a bitter divorce battle with his second wife, Lucie, who is quite determined to get half of everything he’s got.  Including half of any books he produces between now and the official end of their marriage.  And the stress of all this has made it impossible for him to produce anything, for a year and a half now.  He’s well behind deadline, and his editor is making politely impatient noises, that will soon become louder and more insistent.

And honestly, for all the money he’s made–Wayne tries not to gasp when Bryce lets it slip his advance is over a million–there really isn’t that much left.  One ex-wife already, three kids to put through college, and he’s gotten used to the finer things in life (the more you make, the more you spend; the more you spend, the more you need to make in order to maintain your spending; the joys of the upwardly mobile lifestyle in a nutshell).

Sure, he wouldn’t be penniless if he hung it all up, but he wouldn’t be Bryce Proctorr either.  He’d be some has-been hack, with no reason to go on, washed up in his mid-40’s.  Never taken seriously by the critical establishment, forgotten by everyone else.  Just another name you see on some tattered mass-market paperback at a garage sale.  (Whatever did happen to Mario Puzo, by the way?)

And he’s just now getting a brilliant and rather evil idea (and really, aren’t all brilliant ideas just a little bit evil?), as well as providing this book with its title. What’s great about talking to Wayne is that they’re both professional storytellers, they both think in the same basic terms, speak the same language.  To them, fiction is not a metaphor for life, so much as life is a metaphor for fiction.

“Wayne, listen,” Bryce said.  “You know how you–You know, you’re working along in a book, you’re trying to figure out the story, but where’s the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can’t get it and you can’t get it and you can’t get it, and then all of a sudden there it is!  You know?

“Sure,” Wayne said.  “It has to come, or where are you?”

“And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for.”

“Those are the best,” Wayne said.

“I just found my hook,” Bryce told him.

Wayne has a book he can’t get published–written by Tim Fleet, who almost nobody knows is Wayne Prentice.  Bryce says that can be his next book–he’ll just rewrite it enough so the few people who read the manuscript when it was making the rounds won’t recognize it.  Proctorr-ize it.  He’s read some of Wayne’s stuff under the Fleet name, liked it–he knows Wayne is good enough to impress his publisher, once he’s decked out in the Emperor’s old clothes.  He’ll split his advance with Wayne, 50/50–over half a million bucks.

Wayne can’t believe Bryce is even suggesting this, though in fact it’s a very poorly kept secret that both Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have done this multiple times (Drowned Hopes contains a reference to a writer named Justin Scott, a crafter of nautical adventures, who is also known to have produced novels of the same general type that were accredited to the Clive Cussler brandname–probably most of Cussler’s readers never noticed the difference, except maybe to say “Hey, Clive’s stepped up his game with this one!”), and they were both probably a lot less generous in terms of the split.  Um–now that we’re on the subject– why so generous, Bryce?

Because there’s a catch.  A hook, if you will.  The book needs to be submitted soon.  The divorce may drag on for years.  Lucie will get half the advance if the book is completed before the divorce is final.  Bryce needs his half, in order to go on living in the manner to which he has become accustomed.  For Wayne to get Lucie’s half, Lucie’s gotta go.  He wants Wayne to kill her.  They may not be complete strangers, or on a train, but it’s close enough.  In return, Bryce will sacrifice his own sense of professional pride on the bloody altar of necessity by using a ghostwriter, which for a novelist is probably the more serious crime of the two.  So still trading murders.

Now.  Here’s my question.  Did Westlake start out writing another book along the lines of A Likely Story, that masterful and murder-free satire of the publishing biz that hardly anybody read?  Only to then be informed by various persons in authority that satire is well and good, but if he wants this book to sell, he needs to recognize that people will expect some kind of criminal activity from him, such as murder, and all the more after The Ax and the return of Richard Stark (his Tim Fleet) reestablished him as something more than just that guy who writes comic capers about baffled burglars.

And at the same time, he was in the early stages of adapting a novel by the late Ms. Highsmith into a movie, and he was not just reading that specific book by her, and he saw how her narrative hook in her first and still best-known novel–and the ideas behind it, the sense of compromised identity, a dark relationship between secret sharers (forgot to mention Conrad on Highsmith’s list of influences) that corrupts and destroys both protagonists–could fit into what he was doing here.  Or maybe he intended all this from the first.  I’m just curious. Because in a certain weird way, this book is a collaboration between him and a writer he may never have even met.

But suffice it to say Valerie Sayers was far more correct than she knew when she said this was a sort of meta-textual commentary on the writing of genre books–it’s a meta-textual commentary on the career of its author, and many another as well (I still think Sayers felt more of a sense of self-recognition there than she was comfortable with).  But she sort of sniffed a bit when she said it, dismissing the effort as somehow trivial, and was she right to do so?

Is this an unsatisfactory compromise of a book, stuck between two modes of storytelling?  Pretending to be a nice diverting suspense novel about murderous writers, while really playing around with another writer’s much earlier idea, turning it into a way to comment on the relationship between fiction and life?

(Though I might mention on the side, because I apparently can’t help myself, that I noted Sayers doing something quite similar in one of her books I was leafing through last week, that was published a few years before The Hook came out.  This character of hers, an aspiring writer, is right in the middle of a dramatic situation with a woman he’s involved with, and even as he deals with that sticky situation, he’s thinking to himself how he’s going to have to rewrite the book he’s composing in his head about their relationship to accommodate his altered perception of her.  Writers probably can’t stop themselves from doing that, fictionalizing daily existence, while cannibalizing daily existence for the building blocks of their fiction–but honestly, can anybody stop doing that these days?  David Copperfield was doing it back in 1849, and it’s only gotten worse since then.)

So I’m only a few pages into the book here, but we bloggers have our own self-imposed deadlines to deal with, internalized editors nagging us, and I’m sure I’ll have many more snarky and unfair things to say about Valerie Sayers’ review in Part 2 (why does she get paid and I do not!), but I will try to actually finish the review next time, and if I fail in that attempt, well, it wouldn’t be my first three-parter, would it now?  Here’s hoping the hook is sufficiently well stuck in your mouths for you all to come back and find out.  See, I really am a hooker.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Ax, Part 2

I wage not any feud with Death
For changes wrought on form and face;
No lower life that earth’s embrace
May breed with him, can fright my faith.

Eternal process moving on,
From state to state the spirit walks;
And these are but the shatter’d stalks,
Or ruin’d chrysalis of one.

Nor blame I Death, because he bare
The use of virtue out of earth:
I know transplanted human worth
Will bloom to profit, otherwhere.

For this alone on Death I wreak
The wrath that garners in my heart;
He put our lives so far apart
We cannot hear each other speak.

From In Memoriam A.H.H., by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Every era, and every nation, has its own characteristic morality, its own code of ethics, depending on what the people think is important.  There have been times and places when honor was considered the most sacred of qualities, and times and places that gave every concern to grace.  The Age of Reason promoted reason to be the highest of values, and some peoples–the Italians, the Irish–have always felt that feeling, emotion, sentiment was the most important.  In the early days of America, the work ethic was our greatest expression of morality, and then for a while property values were valued above everything else, but there’s been another more recent change.  Today, our moral code is based on the idea that the end justifies the means.

There was a time when that was considered improper, the end justifying the means, but that time is over.  We not only believe it, we say it.  Our government leaders always defend their actions on the basis of their goals.  And every single CEO who has commented in public on the blizzard of downsizings sweeping America has explained himself with some variant on the same idea: The end justifies the means.

The end of what I’m doing, the purpose, the goal, is good, clearly good.  I want to take care of my family; I want to be a productive part of my society; I want to put my skills to use; I want to work and pay my own way and not be a burden to the taxpayers.  The means to that end has been difficult, but I’ve kept my eye on the goal, the purpose.  The end justifies the means.  Like the CEOs, I have nothing to feel sorry for.

This was certainly Westlake’s best-reviewed novel, to the point where (as I mentioned already) it was starting to worry him, as he learned how much higher the bar had been set for anything he wrote subsequently.  But for all of that, we shouldn’t kid ourselves.  It was still a novel from a genre writer, a mystery writer, a writer best known for comic hardcovers and hardboiled paperbacks; a writer who never had a real bestseller (though this came close), or won a mainstream award.   A writer who published so many books, mainly geared to popular tastes, that no one of them, no matter how superb, could ever be treated as some epochal literary event, even though arguably no work of literature ever summed up its epoch more perfectly than The Ax.

There was and is no review in The New Yorker.  There was and is no review in The New York Review of Books.  There was and is no review in the Times Literary Supplement (which did review his Up Your Banners very favorably, if also briefly and anonymously–and with a certain sense of disorientation, since the reviewer didn’t understand how such a novelist so adept at dealing with social issues could be wasting his time on thrillers).  There was and is no review in Harpers Weekly.  And etc. This book did not elevate Donald E. Westlake to the rank of Literary Lion, and given how mixed his feelings clearly were about that lofty league of sacred scribblers, that’s perhaps just as well.

The newspaper reviews were many and glowing, and it was mentioned by many critics in their end-of-year Noteworthy Books pieces–this was, after all, a very topical story, and it got more and more topical as time passed, so reviews have continued to appear, as the book has been rediscovered with each new downturn, each new swing of The Ax, each new angry outburst from a struggling and aggrieved Middle Class.  Even the film Costa-Gavras made almost a decade later constitutes a rediscovery.  People keep saying this book is a timeless classic waiting to be acclaimed as such.  I expect they’ll be saying that for some years to come.

I’m merely adding my mote to the pile here, giving this book some of the more intensive study and analysis it merits, while still believing that anybody with a brain and a heart can  understand it quite well without my prattling pontifications.  The fine details, the little half-hidden jokes he loved to stick in for lagniappe, even in his more serious stuff, may be missed by many (probably no one would be sharp enough to spot them all), but they are not at all the point of the endeavor.  They are there for those who can appreciate them.  If not on the first reading, perhaps years later, when the reader has become more seasoned, read more, picked up a few more scars on the battlefield.

If this is not universally recognized as a Great Book (you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone calling it a bad one), it may be only because it’s too accessible.   Its truths are too universal. (See all those covers up top? More where that came from, I bet.)  Its style is too meat and potatoes, as is its protagonist, and its theme.  There are ambiguities in it, identity puzzles, moral shadings that could (and should) be debated at length.  But the stark outlines of the story’s meaning (and stark would be the adjective to use) are not ambiguous, not ambivalent, not encoded.  They are there for all to see.

Which to be sure is equally true of many a universally acclaimed masterwork, from before the postmodern era (shall we ever get to the post-postmodern era?).  Westlake is, I sometimes think, the greatest 19th century American writer who ever got born into the 20th (and I think he knew it, too).  But while his sensibilities may be at times archaic, his keen perceptions remain fully trained on the present.  He doesn’t write in the past, even when he’s gazing longingly back at it.  He’s a Miniver Cheevy who has learned, painfully but willingly, to live in his own time.

Which means, of course, living in a succession of times, a tumult of overlapping eras, amidst a sea of people who don’t understand each other, for reasons of race, religion, politics, culture, history, generation, temperament, and language.  We can hear each other speak, perhaps–no end of mediums for hasty ill-thought self-expression–but how often do we ever comprehend what is being expressed before it’s too late?

So in this book Westlake concentrates on just one quiet focused voice within the tumult–a man who says very little out loud, who has never really been good at sharing his feelings,  his thoughts.  He has much of value to say, but no one to say it to in his daily life.  His wife would listen, wants to listen, but because she’s never had a career, never been the provider in the family (his choice, much more than hers), she can’t know what it means to lose all that.  His children are caught up in the questions of their own lives, as adulthood draws near for them.  Needing to find out who they are, they can’t stop and notice the changes in their dad (dads aren’t supposed to change).

His friendships all stemmed from his job–and in a rare moment of honest eloquence at a counseling session, he says that as soon as he and his co-workers at the paper mill were laid off, they became each others’ competition–they became the enemy.  His enemies.  And what do you do with your enemies?   You kill them.  In a well-ordered society, only metaphorically.  But Burke Devore has moved beyond the metaphorical.  And he can’t allow anyone to know that.  Anyone but us.

So he goes out on job interviews (sometimes even real ones), but with the secret purpose of seeking out and terminating six men, who have already been terminated in the professional sense, just like him.  First the metaphorical ax, then the real one.  Each of them is guilty of being better-qualified, if only slightly, for the position he intends to create for himself at a nearby paper mill, by murdering the man who currently holds it.  Of the seven he needs to kill, he’s done for three (the hysterical wife of the second was collateral damage, regrettable but necessary).  Four to go.

But Life won’t make it easy on him, keeps distracting him.  He doesn’t simply want his job back, he wants the life that came with it, and his family is an integral part of that life.  His children will leave home soon (maybe not as soon as he thinks, that being another social change in the offing), but his wife Marjorie is necessary to him, and she finally breaks through the wall of his concentration to let him know she’s been having an affair with a neighbor, and she wants them to get marriage counseling.  Communication between them has broken down.  She wants him to share more, so she can help him with what he’s going through.  Well, she thinks that’s what she wants.

His reaction is threefold.  First–they can’t afford counseling (this is the reaction he shares with Marjorie, who remains adamant).  Second–he can’t afford to open up to anyone about what he’s going through now.  Third–he’s going to find out who the lover is and kill him.  He knows how.  His skill set is getting larger all the time.  But what’s the point, if Marjorie leaves?  He has no choice but to agree to counseling.  He’ll keep his own counsel about the things that matter, and he’ll pick up the pace on his project–once he’s got his job, the right job, the problems in his marriage will be solved.

And next on his list is Kane B. Asche, 11 Footbridge Road, Dyer’s Eddy, CT.  The man’s resumé perhaps imprudently mentions he is still under 50, which just makes Burke that much more determined to kill him.  He tells us that he’s gone out of his way to learn his victims’ middle names, via their birth certificates–not because it assists him in any way, but because it gives him a sense of power over them, knowing their secret name, the one they hide behind an initial.  He says he’s noticed the police always use the middle name when they announce a manhunt or arrest, so they feel that same sense of power.

Dyer’s Eddy is a whirlpool that occurs at a point in the Pocochaug River, and the footbridge in Footbridge Rd. goes right over it, and this is all made up, there is no such river, there is no Dyer’s Eddy (at least not by that name), but I feel terrible saying so, because you absolutely believe there is such a place when you’re reading Burke’s description of it.  Westlake blends real and ersatz place names and geography so skillfully here, you have a hard time knowing where one leaves off and the other begins, unless you know the area in question very well indeed; which somehow only adds to the strange pleasure of reading this book, which I suppose is akin to Burke’s pleasure in knowing his victims’ middle names.  (Not that I know Connecticut well at all–I get this little added thrill a bit later on.)

KBA, as Burke refers to him, has not been unemployed long, and seems to be childless, which Burke figures is the reason he and his wife are still so very close and cozy with each other, working on a vegetable garden together as he watches them–thrifty, therapeutic, and romantic.  He can’t stand it.  Can’t wait to kill this guy, but not while the wife is there–can’t go through that again.  He’ll come back later to finish the job.  Now he’s got to go to counseling.

The counselor’s name is Longus Quinlan, and Burke can’t figure out how anybody gets a name like that, until they meet him, and he’s black.  Burke isn’t particularly racist, but he’s clearly had little contact with anyone who isn’t white, and that can amount to the same thing.  He tells us earlier that he just assumes anybody who gets a job in his field who is a minority–or female–got it because of affirmative action.  He doesn’t even consider them real competition.

So he takes Mr. Quinlan rather lightly at first, but learns over time that he’s wrong to do that, and he adjusts his conceptions accordingly.  He can’t afford the luxury of blind prejudice.  He can’t afford to underestimate anyone.  But knowing little about what a counselor does, and having been on the taciturn uncommunicative side even before he became a murderer, some hostility is bound to surface.

He held up a hand and raised a finger and smiled past it at us.  “We don’t yet know what it is you want,” he said.  “You think you know what you want.  What you probably think is, what you want is what you used to have.  But it may turn out, that isn’t what you want, after all.  That’s one of the things we’ll have to discover along the way.”

What he’s saying, I realized, is that we may wind up ending the marriage when this is all over, and then that’ll turn out to have been what we wanted all along, and he’ll have turned out to have done his job.  Pretty good.  How do I get into this line of work?

(Given what happened to an equally affable and perceptive therapist in The Stepfather, Mr. Quinlan should feel most fortunate if he gets out of this book alive, but Burke differs in  many crucial ways from ‘Jerry Blake’–no doubt they’d have an interesting conversation, those two.  Before one killed the other.  My money’s on Burke.)

The morning he goes back to Dyer’s Eddy, Burke gets a late start, he informs us, because he had trouble sleeping the night before.  He had a minor epiphany that woke him up–when Marjorie told him about her boyfriend, his immediate reaction was not enraged jealousy, but cold-blooded determination.  This man is threatening his marriage, so this man will die.  He realizes that because he’s made murder the answer to his employment woes, he’s starting to think of it as the answer to everything.

I’m not a killer.  I’m not a murderer, I never was, I don’t want to be such a thing, soulless and ruthless and empty.  That’s not me.  Whatever I’m doing now I was forced into by the logic of events; the shareholders’ logic, and the logic of the marketplace, and the logic of the workforce, and the logic of the millennium, and finally by my own logic.

Show me an alternative, and I’ll take it.  What I’m doing now is horrible, difficult, frightening, but I have to do it to save my own life.

If I kill the boyfriend, it will be something else.  Not exactly casual, but normal.  As though killing has become a normal response for me, one of the ways I deal with a problem.  Simple; I murder a human being.

The untroubled ease with which I’d thought that thought–kill him, why not–is what’s frightening, what scares me.  I’m harboring an armed and dangerous man, a merciless killer, a monster, and he’s inside me.

And he assumes that somehow, if he can finish his quest, get the job, this change in him will “bleach away, like the most recent fat melting off when you first go on a diet.”  He has to get rid of the killer inside him, and the only way to do that is to kill faster, so this time he’s not going to hesitate, even if he has to kill the wife as well–if they insist on being the most tight-knit couple alive, always together, he can arrange for them to stay that way forever.

But he doesn’t.  He figures out KBA is working at a local nursery (that’s how he can afford all the gardening supplies), and he finds him alone there, and out comes the Luger.  Two resumés to go, then he creates a vacancy for himself, a new life to replace the one taken from him.   He doesn’t even seem to imagine the wife’s reaction when she learns her life is gone.  He doesn’t ask himself if it would have been more merciful had he taken them both out.  He leaves that to us.

And he gets all sociological on us again, and it’s pretty good sociology (you keep thinking somehow that the paper industry was not such a good fit for him, but maybe he was a late bloomer, intellectually speaking).  He’s got something to say about the middle class.  Well honestly, these days, who doesn’t?

We were supposed to be protected and safe, here in the middle, and something’s gone wrong.  When a poor person loses some lousy little job that had no future anyway, and has to go back on welfare, that’s an expected part of life.  When a millionaire shoots the works on a new venture that falls flat and all of a sudden he’s broke, he knew all along that was a possibility.  But when we slip back, just for a little bit, and it goes on for month after month, and it goes on for year after year, and maybe we’re never going to get back to that particular level of solvency and protection and self-esteem we used to enjoy, it throws us.  It throws us.

And what happens is, because we’re family people, it’s throwing the families, too.  Children turn bad, in a number of ways. (Thank God we don’t have that problem.) Marriages end.

Burke is making several bad assumptions here (including the notion that the rich foot the bill for their failures in present-day America), but the one that hits closest to home comes in the form of a phone call in the middle of the night, that Marjorie gets, because, Burke sourly notes, he’s not really the head of the household anymore.  But that’s about to change.

His son Billy has been arrested for robbing a small computer store with a friend.  Burke’s immediate instinctive reaction is to say “It’s my fault” and to do everything in his power to shield Billy from the consequences of his crime.   When they see him at the State Police headquarters, Burke lets Billy know that he must say this was his first and only offense and stick to that story no matter what.  Burke already knows that isn’t true, Billy has done this multiple times. He’s telling his son to lie to the police, and to lie consistently.

A lawyer is obtained–they can’t afford the best legal talent, but they get an older semi-retired attorney with the right experience and connections.  Billy’s case is detached from that of his friend–who was found to have a large amount of stolen goods in his home.  None was found at the Devore home.  Burke anticipated the police searching the house, swept it clean of all incriminating evidence (and hid the Luger he’s used to murder four people under the seat of his Plymouth Voyager.)  Billy’s friend would have a better chance of avoiding jail if he and Billy were tried together–but more likely he’d drag Billy down with him.  So the entreating glances of his terrified parents are studiously avoided by both Burke and Marjorie.

Burke tells us that a short time before, he’d have trusted the police, and the prosecutors, and the courts to do the right thing, to protect him and his family–and now he knows you can’t trust anyone, that all the system wants to do is chew his boy up, and spit him out, and that it’s his job to protect Billy from that.  He looks at the fairly professional state cops, who are not being abusive, who are doing their jobs more or less correctly (Billy is local, white, still marginally middle class)–and he sees hated implacable enemies to be defeated. He no longer believes in society, in law and order, in good government.  There’s you and your family, and nothing else.

And both Billy and Marjorie respond to his strength, his certainty, and do what he says with little or no hesitation, circling the wagons.  What the daughter, Betsy, thinks of all this is unknown (that would have been an interesting companion piece to this novel–perhaps a novella written from her POV–oh well).

Billy avoids jail, and his record is sealed, meaning that if he has no further offenses, he’ll have no criminal record.  Burke has saved his boy, and furthermore has told him, with great kindness and understanding, that it was just a mistake, they’ll get past it, everything will be fine–he’s become a hero to his son, and of course to his son’s mother–who quietly tells Burke that she’s ended the affair.  Burke has already figured out who the boyfriend was–a downsized former bank executive, now working at a Mercedes-Benz dealership, selling expensive toys to his former peers, maybe even to former colleagues. Burke’s sorry for the man. He can afford to be.  No competition for him now, on any level.

And when this book came out, absolutely nobody wrote about how this was drawn from an episode from Westlake’s own youth, how he’d been the boy hauled in by the State Police for theft, how Westlake’s father Albert had fought with everything he had to make sure his son’s life wasn’t destroyed, and how he’d said that it was his own fault this had happened, because he hadn’t been successful enough in life to give his children the things they deserved.  The few who knew about it were not in a position to talk about it.  And even with a bonafide masterwork to his credit, Westlake wasn’t the kind of writer who got that kind of scrutiny.  (But you can’t say he didn’t give the critics plenty of hints.)

That grief, that guilt, that gratitude, had lain inside Donald Westlake for decades, expressing itself in various oblique ways in his storytelling, but now he was ready to tackle it all head-on–and I know–I know–that he wept quietly when he wrote parts of this.  And now you can read about that episode in a fragment of his unpublished biography in The Getaway Car, and wonder to yourself how many other things we’d learn about him if it ever got published.  The scene rings true whether you know what’s behind it or not.   But it’s good to know.

And you still wonder–was Westlake saying that his father should have just let him get ground up in the mill, teach him a lesson?   Impossible to believe.  No, he was saying that even at its best, the criminal justice system is so geared towards retribution that it can destroy lives for no reason at all–Westlake had stolen a microscope and pawned it.  How many kids have gone down with barely a ripple because of stupid youthful mistakes like that? He was one of the lucky ones.  And he knew it.  Survivor’s guilt, turned to anger at the way things are.  And the creeping awareness of just how much worse they could become, if we aren’t careful.

But if he’s making this multiple murderer the bearer of this message, that means we can’t just dismiss Burke Devore as a monster, a freak, a ‘serial killer’–he’s none of these things.  Within the painfully narrow moral context he’s occupying now, he’s right.  He’s seeing things as they really are.  But how well is he seeing himself?

He can’t stop to think about that.  He moves on to his penultimate resumé, but he has a wonderful bit of luck, before he has time to strike–a call to the house leads to a revelation from the man’s wife–he’s gotten a job!   A job Burke himself interviewed for, involving soup can labels, that he didn’t get.  For a moment, Burke is gripped with rage, thinking it’s the Arcadia job (which of course it couldn’t be, since Burke hasn’t killed the current holder of that job yet), but then realizing his mistake, he’s filled with joy and relief.  He tells the mystified wife how truly happy he is for both of them (he really is, and without the slightest tinge of irony).  He scratches the lucky fellow off his list, and thinks of them no more.   Just one more resumé to go now.

(I would be remiss not to mention that in scouting out this house, on a walking trail behind it, Burke heard the wife coming up behind him, hitting trees with her stick, to ward off snakes.  See how well it works?)

This book plays no structural games, of the type Westlake often indulged in.  47 chapters, 273 pages in the first edition.  I suppose the 47 could be a reference to Black ’47, the height of the Irish famine–but it’s a different Celtic catastrophe that gets referenced in Chapter 24.  The Highland Clearances, which Burke says he read about in college.  He liked history, did well in it.  He thought of what he read in the history books as just stories.  He knows better now.

The Highlanders thought they were on their own land, that they had something that couldn’t be taken away from them, as long as they worked hard and followed the rules set down by their society.  But then the landlords, good Scotsmen themselves for the most part, realized that if they cleared the land and turned it over to sheep, they’d make more money than they ever could from rents.  So they just turned the people off their little plots of land, burned the houses, knocked down the fences, brought in the sheep, and the people had to find somewhere else to go.  Or else they had to die.  And many of them did  just that.

And it’s an old old story, lads and lassies, that’s been told in every language ever spoken, though some versions are sadder than others.  And Burke tells it well here, but I’d say these fellows are a bit closer to the source.

But here’s what Burke has to tell us–it’s not just a story.  It’s not just the Highlands of Scotland.  And it’s not just the past.   Well, Faulkner could have told him that.  Or the present-day residents of Balmedie, Scotland, down by the sea. They’ve got a new golf course now, did you hear?  Look it up.

It’s the descendants of those landlords that are doing the clearances called downsizing now.  The literal descendants sometimes, and the spiritual descendants always.

You like that desk where you are?  You say you’ve given the company your life, your loyalty, your best efforts, and you think the company owes you something in return?  You say all you really want is to stay at your desk?

Well, it isn’t your desk.  Clear it.  The owner has realized he can make more money if he replaces you with another sheep.

So a variety of things happen before the next body drops.  Burke gets a visit from a police detective, who tells him that he’s investigating a link between two of Burke’s victims.  They both interviewed for the same job, and they both were shot with the same gun.  It’s pretty clear Burke isn’t a suspect, at least not yet–the detective is just wondering if Burke knew either man, and Burke says he didn’t (he expresses some concern about whether he might be next, and this is a nice ruse, but in fact he does tell us he’s getting nervous going out to get his mail lately–suppose somebody else had the same idea as him?).

The detective leaves, still baffled, and Burke knows now he can’t use the Luger anymore, nor can he get another gun.   And the great thing about guns, he says, is the way they distance you from killing.  Make it more of an abstract thing. He’s not sure he can strangle or stab anybody.

Yes, there are criminal byways he could use to obtain a sidearm illicitly–but he doesn’t belong in that world, he thinks to himself–he’d be destroyed there.  He’s no criminal. He thinks about how if he’d killed Garrett Blackstone, the man who got the job making soup can labels and disappeared from Burke’s list (like magic!), the police would have known for sure it was no coincidence.   He’s going to have to find other methods to employ in order to finish his project.  He’s going to have to keep upgrading his skills. And he’s going to have to find a way to get at his final resumé.

Hauck C. Exman, of 27 River Road, Sable Jetty, NY.   A former marine, who worked for the same company all his life after leaving the military.  It seems he has retained the military mindset.  His riverfront home, Burke notes with disgust, is in a strategically sound location, with all the advantages of terrain, and it would be impossible for him to sneak up on the guy there.  It’s alongside Route 9, atop the Palisades, by the banks of the Hudson (a lovely road to drive, if you’re ever in the area). Mr. Exman has several exes, it seems, and the current one is mowing his lawn, as Burke surveys the battlefield, and leaves feeling most discomfited.  This is going to be a tough nut to crack, particularly without the artillery.

But before he makes his play, he’s got to get through another session with Marjorie and Longus Quinlan, and for just a moment there, his certainty in the rightness of what he’s doing is compromised, ever so slightly.

Quinlan is trying to reach Burke–he doesn’t quite know why he finds this man so troubling, but he knows there’s something there, something more than just a couple having communication problems, and he rightly assumes it’s about losing a job, so he says the usual thing about how some people take that as an opportunity, and Burke’s heard that before, says it’s crap.

Marjorie looked at me, startled, when I said that, when I told Quinlan he was saying crap, because we’d all been gentle and polite with one another up to now, but Quinlan didn’t mind.  I’m sure he’s heard a lot worse in that office. He grinned at me and shook his head and said, “Mr. Devore, what you’re picking up as the message is crap, I’ll go along with that.  But what you’re picking up is not what I’m sending out, and it’s not what those people at the mill were sending out.  The real message is, you are not the job.

I looked at him.  Was that supposed to mean something?

He saw that I still wasn’t receiving whatever it was he was trying to send, so he said, “A lot of people, Mr. Devore, identify themselves with their jobs, as though the person and the job were one and the same.  When they lose the job, they lose a sense of themselves, they lose a sense of worth, of being valuable people.  They think they’re nothing anymore.”

“That isn’t me,” I said.  “That isn’t the way I look at it.”

He’s lying.  He believes the lie, and he tells it convincingly, and he’s right to be angry about all the self-help bullshit they fed him on the way out the door, but he’s lying, and we know he’s lying, because we’ve been inside his head listening to him all this time, and what Quinlan just described is exactly what he’s been expressing to us, but he’s forgotten it.  This isn’t a diary we’re reading, it’s a chain of thought, and it keeps getting further and further away from its point of origin.

The man who could have listened to what Quinlan has to tell him is dead, replaced by a man who probably does no longer think of himself as the job–who knows the job can’t be him, because no job belongs to you, because nothing belongs to you, except your skills and your mind and your determination to make a place for yourself in a harsh Darwinian world that is always trying to destroy you and your family.  A few months ago, these words might have given him pause, might have kept him from starting down the road he’s on.  But having gone so far down it already, it’s too late for him to turn back.  So he goes back to Sable Jetty to finish what he started.

He can’t figure out where Exman is going.  It’s a bad place to do surveillance, he can’t just wait outside all day.  Some kind of weird schedule the man is keeping. He has to lure him out of that fortress, somehow.  And he comes up with a really mean trick, and he’s ashamed of pulling it, and worried it might backfire, but in the event, it works beautifully.

He sends Hauck Exman a letter, from that fictional company with the fictional ad about a fictional job opening that got him all those resumés to start with, telling him that the person they hired has turned out to be unsatisfactory, that they now realize they were mistaken not to have hired Hauck Exman to start with, and they’d like to interview him–secretly, away from the office, so as not to create an unpleasant scene with the man currently on the job, who they are going to dismiss as soon as they have his replacement.

Burke’s judged his man well–his vanity, his arrogance, his desire to be interviewed by a fictional Personnel Director named Laurie Kilpatrick who he will naturally assume is young and attractive and eager to flirt with him.   Burke even fixes it so that Exman will send back the letter to Burke’s P.O. box with his answer to the interview request (to avoid an embarrassing phone call that would alert the man he’s going to replace)–hopefully eliminating any chance of a trail leading back to him.

So the meeting is to be at an expensive restaurant, and of course that bitch Kilpatrick never shows, since she doesn’t exist and all.  Exman waits for hours, and finally leaves, looking small and defeated (and surprisingly well-dressed, Burke notes from his lookout post).  He follows him back to Sable Jetty, only to see him drive to a mall–he’s a salesman at a men’s clothing outlet there.  That’s how he can afford the nice suit.  But pretty soon, he’s not gonna like the way he looks.  Burke guarantees it.

He has to chat him up a bit, but that doesn’t bother him anymore, as it did with previous targets.  He’s getting better and better at improvising plans of attack in the field.  Having figured out when his victim will be leaving work, and knowing where his car is parked, Burke heads off to do some shopping.  As he tells us, “If you want to kill somebody, you can find everything you need for the job down at the mall.”  Now who does that remind me of?

By closing time, he’s got the hardware, and the former marine walks right into his trap.  Civilian life makes you careless.  You get used to people not trying to kill you after a while.  Burke pretends to be having car trouble–he’s already told Exman that he’s in the market for a sport jacket, and now the guy figures he’s out a commission if Burke has to call a mechanic in, so ever the man-in-charge, he leans over to take a look under the hood, and gets two quick blows to the head from a hammer.  There’s a tarp all ready for him in the cargo area of the Voyager. It’s after dark, it’s one of those huge mall parking lots, everybody’s wrapped up in their own lives–nobody notices a thing.

It’s too late for him to dispose of the body, so he stores it in a leaf bag in his garage.  A few steps away from his wife and children.  The next day he takes it to the recycling center (he can’t afford home garbage pick-up anymore).  Hauck Exman’s trussed up body, encased in sturdy plastic, will end up in a landfill, out on the Long Island Sound.  Well, at least he’s biodegradable.

And Burke realizes he’s having a hard time remembering the name of the first man he killed–Herbert C. Everly, that’s it.  Both his first and last resumés had the initials HCE.  Which may in fact be a reference to Finnegan’s Wake (so much good stuff I missed entirely has come up in the comments section for Part 1), or to something else entirely, or to nothing at all (I don’t really believe that), but to Burke all it means is that he’s getting better at this sideline of his.

How simple that one was, simple and smooth and fast and clean.  It encouraged me, it made everything else possible, because it made me believe the whoel thing could be that impeccable.  If I’d had the second HCE to do first, none of this would ever have happened.  I just wouldn’t have been up to it.

The idea of the learning curve is, the first time you do something you aren’t very good at it, but you learn something about how the job is done.  Then the second time, you’re better, but still flawed, and you learn a little more.  And so on, until you’re perfect.  The learning curve is an arc, beginning with a steep upward sweep, because you’re learning a lot each time in the early days, and then gradually it flattens out to a level, as you learn in smaller and smaller increments the nearer you get to your ideal.

And he tells himself that it’s ironic that just as he becomes perfect at this new job, he won’t be doing it anymore, but then he thinks you never know–it can be a useful skill.

He’s already sent out a batch of fresh resumés, including one to the mill in Arcadia, so now it’s time to create a vacancy there.  It’s time to go see Upton ‘Ralph’ Fallon.  URF.  He lives in an isolated old farmhouse, which Burke is pleased to note does not have a resident dog to give the alarm.  He breaks in without much trouble–the main entrance hasn’t been used in years, and isn’t locked, just jammed.  He forces it open.  The place is empty.  He’s got some time to do homework.  He knows now it’s best to learn things about a person before you kill him.

The first time is a wash–Ralph brought a woman back with him, somebody he picked up in a bar.  Burke leaves quietly, and tells us he’s not the least bit discouraged.  He’s putting another plan together.  Using what he finds to hand. He doesn’t need the Luger anymore. It would be a hindrance to him.

So he’s waiting there, a few days later, but the man does love to stay out drinking (as divorced men with child support to pay often do).  Burke knows he has to do this when Fallon is alone, and before his two young children come to visit.  But he’s getting a bit too comfortable in his new self–he falls asleep, and wakes to find his victim glaring at him, a gun in his hand.

Well, seasoned professionals don’t panic at the unexpected.  Burke talks to him, tells him his true name and former occupation–he’s a fellow polymer paper man, he lost his job, he’s come to get his advice on how to find a new one.  His sympathies engaged, and his nervous system still lulled by a surfeit of alcohol, Fallon drops his guard.  Puts down his gun.  Picks up the booze, and they talk shop.  Eventually falls to sleep himself.

Now here’s a chance for a merciful hit.  Burke can kill this one without his ever knowing about it.  That’s what you’d expect him to do.  But he can’t.  This one has to be perfect.  He needs it to look like an accident.  So he duct tapes him to the chair he’s snoring his last moments of life away on, and  then duct tapes his mouth shut.  That wakes him up, but the second length of tape, over his nostrils, puts him to sleep forever.  But not instantly.  And not without pain and distress and fear and involuntary vomiting, and he drowns in his vomit.  It just can’t be helped, is all.  He has a job Burke needs, and Burke has to let him go.  He removes the duct tape.  He removes all the fingerprints he can find (like the police in a burg like that would even look for them).

The house has a gas stove.  It has propane tanks.  And it has candles.  Burke is using only what’s there, nothing he brought with him.  As he drives away, he hears an explosion–the whole countryside will hear it.  And will assume that drunken bum finally did himself in, won himself a Darwin Award.  The Perfect Murder.   It does happen, bet on it.  Only the failed attempts at it ever make the papers.

And as he and Marjorie get back from a counseling session he paid absolutely no attention to while it was going on, Burke gets a call.  Guess what?  He’s got an interview at Arcadia Processing.

But then he’s got an interview at his house, with that same detective again, named Burton, and why would he be back again?  What does he know now that he didn’t before?  Burke has a moment of panic–this is the moment when many a man would run, but Burke isn’t that kind of man anymore.  He steels himself, faces the cop calmly, telling himself it’s just procedure.  And that’s exactly what it is.  This isn’t one of those stories, you see, where we get to follow the daring criminal all through his evil scheme, secretly reveling in his prowess and cunning, but then we see him taken off by the law at the end, so we can say “See, I was never really identifying with him.  I wanted that to happen all the time. Bad guys need to be punished at the end.”  Think so, do you?  Then how come you’re reading a Donald Westlake novel?

It’s almost too good.  Burton’s only back to give Burke a bit of closure (nice of him).  See, Hauck Exman interviewed for that job the other two dead men (and Burke) interviewed for.  And the good detective interviewed Mr. Exman, and Burke can just see it–how unhelpful and irritable and offputting Exman would have been, how dare you waste my time with this, what are you implying here? And then he disappeared.  Like from the face of the earth, even.  That woman at the house was his fourth wife, and she’d found out he was playing around, and she’d filed for divorce.  And his house was full of guns.  Obviously he got rid of the one he used as the murder weapon.  Case.  Closed.  Another thrilling mystery solved by the amazing Detective Burton!   Tune in next week when–oh never mind.

Burton sees Burke is wearing a tie–Burke tells him he’s got a job interview, and this time he thinks it’s going to work out fine.  Burton wishes him luck.  Some people make their own luck, you know.  Not necessarily good people.

The first time I read this ending, I must confess to all of you now, I read into it–I felt like Burke was somehow disappointed that the law didn’t catch him, that there really is no justice in this world, that God isn’t watching (or else he’s watching, but he’s on Burke’s team, which would be a forgivable conclusion for Burke to come to, seeing how things have worked out).  I can’t fool myself about that anymore.  Burke might have felt that way a short while before, but now he’s just relieved and happy and pleased with himself, and looking forward to getting back to making paper.  He has no regrets at all.

And he’s looking forward to not having to commit any more murders, but there’s a qualifier comes with that.  He won’t kill anyone again, unless somebody makes him.  Unless somebody else threatens his job.  Because after all, nothing is forever.  Change is perpetual, in all industries, all walks of life.  The mill is doing fine now, but could be some spiritual descendant of those Scottish landlords will get some bright idea about new efficiencies, new redundancies, more money for the stockholders, a bright new feather in his cap.  Burke will be watching closely for that.  And if it happens, he’ll know what to do, and who to do it to.  And he’ll know how to do it, so that no one will suspect. The Ax can fall in more than one direction now.

And on one level, his creator–the God of his universe–is horrified by him.  By the vacuum that his soul has become.  By the way he has let himself completely become his job–both his jobs.  There isn’t a whole human being there anymore, nor will there ever be again.  He could have chosen to know himself better, and he finally chose not to know himself at all.  Burke Devore is a killer who refuses to think of himself as a killer, even as he thinks about potential future killings.

So why does he walk away clean?  Because the Great God Westlake plays it fair, right down the line.  Burke Devore may refuse to know himself, but he knows the world he lives in.  He’s correctly perceived the rules it now operates by.  He looks us right in the eye, and in the end, we’re forced to look away, trembling slightly.

And say this much, he didn’t turn to someone else to solve his problems, and he saw who his enemy was, very clearly indeed.  He didn’t blame the blacks, the gays, the immigrants, the Jews, the Muslims, the government, the lamestream media.  He didn’t put his faith in some slimy huckster, nor did he call out to some partisan deity to save him, while damning everyone else.

You can be a part of society, and live by its rules, its moralities, trusting in a flawed system that has, nonetheless, given us a level of peace and prosperity that our ancestors would have envied.  Or you can be an army of one, and live for yourself, seeking no quarter, and giving none, and not allow yourself the luxury of pretty lies.  Those are your choices.  Burke made his.  We still have to make ours.   Knowing all the while, as an earlier Westlake protagonist who made very different choices once said, that it’s truly exhausting, having to spend your existence slowly circling your fellow man, your hand on the hilt of your knife.  Or your Luger.  Well, it’d be a Glock now.  Lugers look nice, but they’re not practical.

But now we have to think about yet another protagonist–not Westlake’s, exactly. In the same family. Different genus. He’s stirring now, after a long sleep.  I think maybe Burke woke him up. I can see him coming, across the George Washington Bridge, his hands swinging at his sides, his onyx eyes impossible to read, but I can guess what he’s thinking. “You people always make a mess of things.  You’re all crazy.  I’m the only sane one there is.” He’s got a point.  And a Smith & Wesson Terrier.  And business to attend to.

And we need him now, strange it it may sound.  We need him to teach us what he knows.  How to see beneath the surface of things, of people trying to destroy us, no matter how much we don’t want to.  How to learn from the past without becoming trapped in it. How to find the strength to fight back, against malevolence, mendacity, and mob-think.  We need him to teach us about dishes best served cold.   We need him, and here he is, at last.  Like a bad penny.   Good to see you, Parker.  Where you been?

And there’s nothing he can say to that, so he says nothing.   We’ll have to listen more closely.  Learn by emulation.  To the limited extent we poor gibbering apes are able.   If a wolf could speak, we would not understand him.  This one has an interpreter, though.

Where has he been?  And more relevantly, when?   We’ll talk about that next time.  But for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s 1982. The Planet Saturn.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Ax

For what’s the sound of the world out there?
What, Mr. Todd?
What, Mr. Todd?
What is that sound?
Those crunching noises pervading the air!
Yes, Mr. Todd!
Yes, Mr. Todd!
Yes, all around!
It’s man devouring man, my dear!

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, chart their own course through life, depending on no one but other independents, 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.  He obsessively pores over 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.


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–


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 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.


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 ever 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 drawers of his 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)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Mr. Westlake and The Masterpiece

I’m not going to attempt to define the word masterpiece.  But I do suppose that any work to which the label sticks and sticks and sticks contains at least two things: an accounting, in perfect balance, of the materials it chooses to embrace; and an accounting so complete that it amounts to a summary, of the artist’s own creative method.  The content of the work must fall into place without forcing, with simple rectitude.  And its creator must expose himself in the content as wholly as it is possible for mortal man to do.

From The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.

Sometime around 1998-’99, Donald Westlake wrote a very short article, that was never published in any form, until Levi Stahl saw the manuscript, years later, and put it in The Getaway Car, under the title Light.  And in essence, this article is Westlake complaining that people, both critics and readers, liked a recent book of his far too much, bought far too many copies of it, and he doesn’t know how to react to that, or what he’s supposed to do for a follow-up.  It’s just ruined his whole career.

Westlake bemoaned the fact that before this novel came out, he was operating more or less under the radar–popular enough that he could keep getting published, but not so well-known that he was burdened with excessive expectations for his next book–he had his readers, and they were willing to indulge his whims, follow him wherever he chose to go, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they followed.  He says he kept hearing complaints from his fellow writers who had some major epochal best-selling award-winning tome come out, and then struggled to live up to it in subsequent books.

Now he says he’s experiencing some of that himself, even though his book only made the L.A. Times list for two weeks, wasn’t really a bestseller in any strict sense of the term, and there were no Pulitzers in the offing.   There should have been, but it was still slotted as a crime novel, and 1998 was the year of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, now rather belatedly at a theater near you (Westlake’s book was adapted a decade sooner, by a much better director, with a slight change of venue).

He says he wrote a lighter thing, about insurance fraud (self-evidently The Scared Stiff, later published under a pseudonym), and was told by both agent and editor that it was totally unsuitable as a follow-up.

It wasn’t just the novel under his own name that created the problem–he’d also started writing Parker novels again as Richard Stark, but see, everybody knew who Richard Stark was now–a Stark novel would be treated as a Westlake novel, no longer its own separate thing.  And the new Parker novel had been greeted with great enthusiasm, and all of a sudden he’s not the ‘Neil Simon of Mystery’ anymore, the King of the Comic Caper–a relatively light mantle to bear.  Now he’s being taken seriously, and it’s freaking him out.  He says something about it being rather late in the day to have second novel problems.

Towards the end of the piece, he’s saying that for the first time since 1970, it has become ‘inappropriate’ for him to write about John Dortmunder, “the easiest and most enjoyable part of my working life.”  I have a very hard time swallowing this claim that he was being discouraged from writing about his most popular and beloved character (whose latest adventure had been made into yet another terrible movie with inappropriately cast actors), but he makes it anyway.

Perversity, thy name is Author.

And I say perversity because I have no doubt he was complaining about the exact opposite problem a short time earlier–we’ve seen ample evidence that he wanted to find a way out of the comic caper ghetto he’d spent more and more of his time in since The Fugitive Pigeon came out in 1965 (his other most successful book, and as different from the one we’re discussing here as Philip Barry is from Eugene O’Neill).

We can now read several novels of a more serious bent that he’d lavished considerable effort on prior to this break-out book, only to learn that nobody would accept stories like this coming from him–he was also very bothered by the commercial failure of hybrid works like Kahawa, that tried to work within his established niche while still venturing far outside the lines.

Perverse, but still consistent.  Donald Westlake never wanted to wear just one hat.  He wanted as many strings to his bow as he could possibly carry.  He knew full well what a burden the expectations of the reading public can be upon a writer.  When we really like something, we always want more of the same.  We object when the storyteller wants to try something else–that’s not what you do!   Do that thing you did that we liked, and keep doing it–until we don’t like it anymore, at which point we shall call you a One Trick Pony, and pack you off to the knackers, like poor Boxer in Animal Farm.  The writer is simply supposed to sigh heavily and say “Comrade Reader is always right.  I must work harder.” And eventually drop dead in the traces.

Temperamentally, Westlake was far more a donkey than a workhorse (the Irish in him, no doubt).  He got very contrary.  He was going to work on his own terms, or not at all.  And he was going to get those Benjamins in the process (you see what I did there?).  Donkeys live a long time.  Professionally speaking, at least.

So in re-reading this little diatribe on his then-current woes as a suddenly much more successful and acclaimed Serious Writer (and don’t think for a minute he’s not bragging about this even as he’s bemoaning it, we’re wise to your tricks, Westlake!), I did experience some moments of doubt regarding numerous statements I’ve made in the course of working my way through the 80’s and early 90’s–that Westlake was chafing at the bit, feeling underrated, underappreciated, and confined to a cute comic cubbyhole. My certitude was shaken, I do confess it.

But not for very long.  Because, you see, I’ve read all the articles in The Getaway Car, and one of them was written not by Donald Westlake, but rather by Abby Westlake–the World’s Leading Authority on the many moods of her man.  And the most striking observation she made in that piece was that Westlake’s outward personality tics would change, depending on which literary mode he was in, which alter-ego, he was writing as (and given that this piece was originally published in 1977, it seems evident that sometimes he’d be writing (and living) as one of these alter-egos even when he wasn’t publishing anything under that particular nom de plume).

Tucker Coe, she observes–

–is the gloomy one, almost worse to have around the house than Richard Stark.  We see Tucker Coe when things go wrong.  The bills can’t be paid because the inefficient worlds of publishing and show business have failed to come up with the money to pay them.  Children are rude, noisy, dishonest, lazy, loutish, and above, all, ungrateful; suddenly you wonder what you ever saw in them.  Ex-wives are mean and grasping.  Cars break down, houses betray you, plants refuse to live, and it rains on the picnic.

But remember, she said almost worse–when Stark is in control–

Children tremble, women weep and the cat hides under the bed.  Whereas Tucker Coe is morose and self-pitying, Stark has no pity for anyone.  Stark is capable of not talking to anyone for days, or, worse yet, of not talking to one particular person for days while still seeming cheerful and friendly with everyone else.  Stark could turn Old Faithful to ice cubes.  Do you know how Parker, when things aren’t going well, can sit alone in a dark room for hours or days without moving?  Stark doesn’t do this–that would be too unnerving–but he can play solitaire for hours on end.  He plays very fast, turns over the cards one at a time, and goes through the deck just once.  He never cheats and doesn’t seem to care if the game never comes out.  It is not possible to be in the same room with him while he’s doing this without being driven completely up the wall.

And to some extent, even ‘Donald E. Westlake’–just another alter-ego.  No more or less real than the others.  Perhaps a bit more grounded, more complex–and more genial.  Certainly far easier to live with.  Is it a mere coincidence that of his three marriages, the one that lasted was the one embarked upon as Coe and Stark faded into the background for a very long time?  I’m sure it was more than that.  But going by his third wife’s own words, how long could you live with somebody who alternated between Stark and Coe all the damn time?

So in the light of these revelations, we can say with authority that it was ‘Donald E. Westlake’ who wrote that little article complaining about his newfound success–and then wisely shelved it for posterity to discover at a later date.  The part of him that was Coe, that was Stark (and we could throw in Curt Clark, who I don’t think ever went away completely either; Humans is proof of that, and maybe this book we’re talking about now as well)–those more somber personas could not live on a diet of non-stop whimsy, farcical felonies, mingled with satiric social observations.

Farce and satire and observational comedy were vital components of Westlake’s talent, his character–they weren’t everything he had to offer.  Like any man who knows what’s funny, he also knows what isn’t.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Westlake was spared the final age–second infancy–by a sudden and untimely death, but we can see the middle ages reflected throughout his mature work.   The Lover, the Soldier, the Justice, and maybe even a bit of the lean slippered pantaloon towards the end.  Certainly much of the whining schoolboy in his very early stuff.

In effect, he was complaining in that article he never published about having finally achieved the Bubble Reputation–something he both desired and feared, because he knew how fame and success can undermine identity, trap you inside a false self, cut you off from your muse (and it’s not only artists who need muses–we all have them, little as we heed them most of the time).

I have that Walter Kerr quote up top (he’s talking about Chaplin and City Lights) because I think this is the one book of Westlake’s that embodies what Kerr was getting at there, with his typical incisiveness.  But I don’t think this is Westlake’s only masterpiece, by any means.  I’m sure we’d all come up with different lists.

You can see part of mine in the cover images I chose, but I couldn’t very well put all of them up there.  Man wrote a lot of good books.   And if you look closely, many of them can be perceived in the framework of this book.  Many of his scattered identities.  He was bringing the whole chorus to bear here, as he had never done before, nor ever would again.

361, about a young man whose already tenuous sense of self is undone by the loss of his family, and in taking arms against a sea of troubles, he finds out who he really is.  For better or worse.  Probably both.  The first unequivocally great Westlake novel, that was composed around the same time as The Hunter, which took the Vendetta as Identity Crisis angle to a whole new level.  To some extent, that cover is standing in for all the Parker novels–collectively, they may well be Westlake’s best work, but because Parker isn’t really one of us, there are certain limitations to what can be expressed with them.  They were written in third person, but please note–all the other books I’m referencing up top featured first person narrators–like the current book.

It was also around this time that Westlake started writing Anarchaos, which I’ll say once more is highly reminiscent of our current book (I’m really stalling about naming it, aren’t I?  What am I so scared of?).  A man is at war with an entire planet, with a brutish nasty and short way of life that chewed up his brother and spat him out, and he’s going to make them all pay.  It’s science fiction, so the protagonist can find a way to destroy that society, punish it collectively for its crimes–but once you’re outside that realm, your options get narrower, if not necessarily less extreme.

Then came Adios, Scheherazade, (still bafflingly and unforgivably out of print), which as I explained in my review, is about a man who loses the whole world and gains his immortal soul.  Much of Westlake’s 1997 book was prefigured in this early underappreciated masterwork, with a crucial exception–this book’s protagonist is headed in the opposite direction.  To hell with his soul, he wants his world back, by any means necessary.  Another first person narrative.

As were the five Mitch Tobin novels, of which I’d consider the third and fourth to be unquestionable masterpieces–the first and second come close, the fifth was just a good read.  But in Wax Apple most of all, he captured an element of pure despair–of human beings separated from each other by yawning gulfs of perception, that corruption of identity that is mental illness. A detective comes and solves the mystery, sure–and who does that help?   The detective, perhaps, but the underlying problems remain unsolved, waiting for an answer that may never come.  Tucker Coe is most of all about empathy, understanding, judging not lest ye be judged, striving to live up to Terence’s brave declaration, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  But the book we’re about to explore is more along the lines of “Homo homini lupus.”  Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It must have hurt to write it.  Westlake in this vein reminds me of no American writer so much as Eugene O’Neill, another black Irishman.  When it came time for O’Neill to write his defining work, the one about his family, we are told he would be sitting at the typewriter with tears of anguish in his eyes, opening old wounds in his soul, exposing himself as fully as it is possible for mortal man to do (Walter Kerr had some things to say about that play as well).  This work is far less autobiographical, but Westlake also had some family ghosts to exorcise within it.

I wonder how easy Westlake was to live with when he was writing this novel.  I’m sure Abby Westlake was exaggerating somewhat for humorous effect, but I’m equally sure she wasn’t just making it up out of whole cloth.  If it was hard to live with just one of these guys, imagine a house full of them.

And that’s what would have been going on, because in the writing this book, there was not one man hammering away at the Smith Corona, but a host of them.  Stark, Coe, Clark, and in the keen social observations, maybe even that shameless hack Culver.  All the voices within him, joined together at that moment to make a chilling and poignant statement about what they saw happening around them at that moment in time.  And yes, this is how things are.

But is this how things must be, always?   If we can’t be honest with ourselves, then yes.  To change a thing, you must know a thing first.  It’s always better to know.  Better, and harder.

And having ascended to that barren windswept plateau, he came back down, and never wrote anything nearly so revelatory again.  There were many good books to come, but he’d expended something that could not be regenerated.  And perhaps that whimsical little piece he wrote about how awful it is to be taken seriously as a writer after four decades of being dismissed as a genre scribbler–perhaps that was him admitting that he didn’t have another book like this in him.  He’d shot his bolt, hit the bullseye, and what followed was more along the lines of shoring up his existing legacy.

To know you have already done your best work is to begin preparing for death. Which was only eleven short years away.   Eleven years, seventeen novels, and a few story collections.  Including plenty of Dortmunder stories, because the clown in him could never be killed.  Referring back to Walter Kerr again, I’d say it was the clown that had kicked the tragic hero awake.  And now they’d all make one last run together.  Donald Westlake was going into his kick.

Let swing the Bloody Ax.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, though pretty sure this one’s never going to be forgotten.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe