Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Ax
Donald E. Westlake, 1997

The prolific Donald E. Westlake, who died last year, wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, the most of famous of which, Richard Stark, became hugely influential in the field of noir fiction. There is an easy generalisation that "Westlake" wrote comic crime capers (for instance the Dortmunder novels) while Stark was the outlet for the darker material.

The Ax gives the lie to that generalisation; under the Westlake byline we have a dark, if bleakly humorous, satire on corporate folly which is more relevant today than when it was written. It's the first-person tale of Burke Devore, the manager of a papermaking plant who is "downsized" (Westlake relishes these management-speak euphemisms). After two years unemployed, Devore realises he isn't going to get another job. He's seen one he's well-qualified for--but he knows others are ahead of him the queue (oh, and the job isn't vacant...). His solution: identify the other potential candidates for the job, kill them, and then kill the incumbent.

While the theme of the novel is clearly satirical, because Westlake is such an accomplished thriller writer, it's also grounded in the plausible. Westlake just tells us what happens, and lets the readers find the satire for themselves. In some ways it's like Stark's Parker novels (relentless attention to the detail divorced from any authorial comment; morally ambiguous endings) but in others it's very different. Stark tells us what Parker does, not what he thinks, but The Ax is a first person narrative, so the book takes place inside Devore's head. His thoughts on his situation, the monstrous but yet entirely reasonable logic he applies, are what makes the book. He is not without conscience or humanity; the reader identifies with him to an alarming extent. The book's resemblance is less to the Parker novels than to American Psycho (which it outclasses by a distance) and Aliya Whiteley's Three Things About Me, another withering deconstruction of the corporate world.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Satire need not be crude--indeed it's probably better if it's not
  • First-person narrative creates instant sympathy
  • If you are going to have an anti-hero as protagonist, you need pinpoint control of voice
  • You can write a comedy--of sorts--about a serial killer


David Isaak said...

Many of the negative reviews on Amazon (the US version) complain that the book made them "uncomfortable," apparently unaware that this was Westlake's intent.

I've seldom seen satire so artfully disguised, and with caricature playing such a minor role.

Westlake wrote "The Ax" and then "The Hook" in close sequence, and there's something similar about the two of them, something I can't quite name. A sense of deeply sympathetic cynicism, or something like that?

Tim Stretton said...

As you say, much of the power comes from the very straight way Westlake plays it. Perhaps that's why so many readers missed the point--there's no-one nudging you or telling how to feel.

"Sympathetic cynicism" is a good description. The reader clearly identifies with Devore, even though Westlake doesn't conceal from the reader--or Devore--the enormity of what he's doing.

I'll have to track down "The Hook".