Donald E. Westlake: The Axe
Read: June 6, 1998
I’m harboring an armed and dangerous man,
a merciless killer, a monster, and he’s inside me.
This is a disturbing book, and it’s haunted me for the days since I first read it. I’m a veteran fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, murder & suspense reader, so there isn’t much that’ll make me put a book down in the middle of a page, take a deep breath, exhale and close my eyes. This book did.
Burke Devore is a desperate, angry man, deeply frightened at the prospect of personal and professional worthlessness now that he’s been handed the pink slip and “chopped” from middle management at the plant he gave twenty-plus years of his life to.
I’ve always imagined life is a series of identity crises punctuated by moments of boredom now and then. Any major change can precipitate a crisis: birthdays, breakups, graduation, accidents, college, marriage, kids, bereavement, new jobs, and the loss of old jobs.
Devore has a major identity crisis on his hands. He lost this job, and decides to manage his crisis rather… aggressively. After a dozen fruitless interviews, rather than take unemployment sitting down, Devore decides to thin the ranks of his competitors by hand.
The scheme and plot Westlake builds out of this angst seemed all-too-real for me. I recognize, in Devore, a portrait of my next door neighbor, my boss, maybe even myself — if I were pushed farther than I could cope.
After 329 pages of forced identification with a protagonist whose actions I found repugnant, author Donald Westlake finally reveals his hand. In three deft paragraphs Westlake outlines the premise for his story that, if true and if accepted, lead to the logical moral outcome the preceding 328 pages painfully described.
Briefly put: if ends justify means, then there is no action so violent, no moral code so abhorrent and no transgression so felonious that it cannot be endured or even embraced. Indeed if ends justify means then self preservation (whatever that means to you) is justification enough for even the most inhumane act you can imagine.
In the end I realized this book is a satire, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. The book is a joke, a dark, macabre joke, and despite the “billboards” hung out before even page one, I very nearly didn’t “get” it.
Don’t leave this book laying around for your children to read, Avoid it if you take anti-depressants, and don’t read it if your stomach can’t handle a large cup of dark-roasted satire. But if you like to think about stories after you read them, then this book’s for you.
[tags]BlogRodent, fiction, book-review, review, Donald-E-Westlake, the-axe[/tags]