Saturday, March 31, 2012

Donald Westlake: Once More from Beyond

Donald Westlake, one of the best genre writers ever, may have passed away in 2008, but his master's voice still calls through the shade.  After his realist novel Memory was pulled from oblivion’s ashes by Hard Case Crime in 2010, it was thought that was it—no more treasures stashed in rusty drawers or musty attics; but, happily, we were wrong: Hard Case has unearthed one more: The Comedy is Finished.

Judging from the title and much of Westlake’s other work, you may mistake this for one of his broadly comic novels, maybe another Dortmunder caper. But that’s not quite the case, though there are darkly hued laughs throughout.

The Comedy Is Finished is a kidnapping caper, set in 1977. The kidnappers: the People’s Revolutionary Army, a fractious, scruffy band of leftover leftie radicals. They’re comprised of Peter, their insecure, but fanatical ringleader; Larry, the house intellectual who sees the world through a melted window of rhetoric framed by spindly theory; Liz, a woman so burned out, she has only dry ice left for a soul; Joyce, a seemingly innocent hippie chick who may not be so innocent; and Mark, a cold, but inwardly raging shark who shares a secret with their victim.

The times are passing this gang by. The country is drifting conservative, but they have not. Desperate to regain lost momentum and the old revolutionary spirit, they select as their victim, no, not a politician or ruthless capitalist, but a legendary comedian, name of Koo Davis, jester to Presidents and U.S. troops overseas. (Readers of a Certain Vintage will immediately envision a certain Bob Hope by the pattern of his personality and his patter.)

The first problem this troubled army faces after they kidnap Koo is that, like them, their prize is also fading into irrelevance. It turns out that getting anyone to care about a guy on the Road to Has-Been City is a little trickier than they imagined: The only person who cares for Koo is his agent. (In our times, imagine a band of right-wingers kidnapping Keith Olbermann . . . really, who would care?)

As for the FBI, their hair isn't exactly on fire either, so they assign Mike Wiskiel, a disgraced agent who seeks to right a ruined reputation and regain past glory, to the case. After while, even he wishes he were back investigating Watergate.

Meanwhile, the kidnappers start to crumble due to the inevitable divisions from within and some surprising intrusions from without. Though their outlook seems quaint—the novel is much too topical—Westlake does an excellent job of portraying their their conflicts, both internal and interpersonal, and their state of physical, spiritual and intellectual exhaustion; of people who have burned too bright and too fast, and who can’t fathom just how little the world cares about their passions. (Even the imprisoned former fellow bomb throwers whose release they demand in exchange for Koo’s have moved on.)

It isn’t just Koo Davis’s comedy that’s finished—theirs has, too.

According to the introduction, The Comedy is Finished was written in the 1970s and reached its present state in the 1980s, when Westlake mailed a copy to fellow mystery writer Max Alan Collins, who hung on to what seemed to be the only copy for thirty years. Westlake is said to have abandoned the novel because it too closely resembled Martin Scorsese’s unsung bizarro classic movie about a celebrity kidnapping, The King of Comedy, released around the same time. Even so, the resemblance doesn’t seem to me to be that strong beyond the initial concept.

Actually, I would have been more worried about Bob Hope and his lawyers, because Koo Davis resembles Hope in his glib, strolling personality, delivery, and mannerisms down to his buttons and collar. All that’s missing is the ski nose. The portrait, though completely different in biographical details, is nearly a mirror image of the totemic comedian.

To my mind, in fact, Westlake’s portrait of Koo is this novel’s strongest suit. Westlake successfully inhabits the mind of a compulsive comic, a guy who has been spinning jokes and gags for so long, that even when he’s in mortal danger, it’s only another excuse for a round of wisecracks: silly, lame (like a lot of Hope’s material), and sometimes even funny.

I recall John Cleese once saying, in a long-ago Dick Cavett interview, that “you don’t learn very much from comedy.” Koo Davis sure hasn’t—his knee-jerk jokery and love for show biz’s glittery nonsense has cut him off from the world, kept him from seeing deeper into the life both around and within. (He’s barely aware he has a family, and they return the compliment). Like many professional humorists, he’s always mining for the next gag and once he’s found it, continues in search of the next one, seldom looking deeper.

I’m not crazy about the title (as I’m not crazy about the titles of some other Westlake novels) and, like other manuscripts-in-a-drawer, it could have used a final polish from its polished author. Still, the appearance of this book is an entertaining, happy occasion, not only for Westlake’s admirers, but for those new and curious. 

Hard Case insists that is really really the last one we can expect from Donald Westlake. But I hope they’re wrong.

(Re-edited 4/2/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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