Mon 5 Jan 2009
DONALD E. WESTLAKE – The Ax.
Mysterious Press, hardcover, June 1997; paperback: May 1998.
The national din on downsizing, corporate America’s wholesale decimation of jobs and workers in pursuit of higher profits and bigger returns to investors, rang loud during the early months of the 1996 Presidential campaign then receded to the level of white noise, in the background, acknowledged but barely noticed. But it didn’t recede as a day-to-day issue for the many American workers who lost their livelihoods and their assumptions about work and identity. And it certainly didn’t recede for Burke Devore, the narrator on Donald Westlake’s new novel, The Ax.
You’ve seen someone like Burke somewhere, bagging your groceries or working the floor at Macy’s. He’s the middle-aged middle manager who bought fully into the fiction that corporate loyalty entitled one to a lifetime job. A good soldier, Burke. Not necessarily the best or brightest, but steady; a good organizer and a facile problem solver, a liberal arts grad who worked his way up from sales to production for a Connecticut paper manufacturer. A man secure in his career and his life until his employer merged with a Canadian conglomerate and sent all the high-paying jobs over the border and all the high-paid workers to the breadline.
The Ax opens two years into Burke’s enforced vacation. His exile, if you will. Though he’s kept quiet and to himself, Burke has not accepted the situation with grace; he wants his job back, his job and nothing else will do. An article in a trade journal points him to a job that’s a carbon copy of his old one at another paper mill within a reasonable commuting distance.
The only problem is the man who’s already in the job. In his mind, Burke toys with the idea of doing away with the interloper until a deflating reality comes to the fore: Even if the current occupant met a sudden demise, someone else would get the job; someone younger, someone with more education; someone who interviews better. Despair evolves into inspiration and Burke’s problem-solving skills come into play as he devises a plan to learn who his most likely competition would be and to them do away with them…
It’s clear that Donald Westlake doesn’t want The Ax to be taken as a comic novel. What he does here is to take reality, stretch it the least little bit and add the slightest of kinks. He taps into the fear of poverty and the career man’s unspoken terror that his professional life’s been for naught, that the wrong choice was made a long time ago and can never be rectified.
In real life, a Burke Devore would be gunned down by police after staging a bloodbath at corporate headquarters, or more likely, would slaughter his family then add himself to the package. But in Westlake’s ghostly, disquieting suburbia, murder becomes an exercise in resume writing, a self-described “learning curve” which Burke Devore masters with each killing. And the killings become a rite of passage through which Burke realizes the strengths and skills he possesses even though he lacks the job through which he’s defined his entire adult existence.
Westlake’s great accomplishment is to get inside Burke’s clever, troubled and bland mind, to make both his madness and his justification credible and yet also show his complete isolation from the world around him. He eschews stylistic flourishes, making Burke’s narrative voice simple, clear and disturbing.
There’s an element of Hitchcock, the mischievous Hitchcock, at work here as well. The subtle humor of unexpected complications and the absurdity of a man blandly talking about taking human life. And the reader being taken in by it all. How will Burke explain and pay for that fender damaged when he ran over a victim and will it be fixed in time to go after victim number four? What’s that cop doing knocking on the door? Will anyone observe the murder in the parking lot?
The primary question for the reader nearing the end of the book, though, is what trick or twist will the author pull out to end things? Will there be a fillip, a catharsis, a mordant twist of fate? Will Burke Devore’s quest end in madness, blood or success?
The last chapter is ironic and troubling. But the book’s chief irony is what Burke Devore becomes by its finish. His claim of sympathy and sorrow for his victims doesn’t stop him from slaughtering them and profiting from their demises. His passionate survival rationale echoes the corporate downsizers who have ended thousands of careers and not a few lives in pursuit of their goals.
The Burke Devore who once blandly assumed lifetime loyalty from corporate America has bought into a new creed: Me first. Win at any cost. The end justifies the means. The one loud laugh in this sorrowful book comes at the bottom line: Burke Devore, corporate downsizing’s ultimate victim, becomes its star-spangled poster boy.