As part of the Nation's spring books issue, Charles Taylor takes another look at one of Donald Westlake's best novels, THE AX. It was originally published in 1997 but, as I indicated in my LA Times appreciation shortly after his death, seems especially prescient during this recessionary rollercoaster. Taylor takes the contemporary resonance a step further, finding that the book reads as an attack on Reaganomics as it applies to the working-class:
This is the special hell of The Ax. We have entered an ordinary, middle-class world where empathy is as useless as on the battlefield. In the opening lines of the book Burke mentions that he would have liked to ask his father, a World War II veteran, what it was like to kill someone. It's a telling comparison. Just having the ordinary, unglamorous, comfortable middle-class life that was supposed to be the reward for playing by the rules--that's the war for Burke's generation. "In those last five months," Burke says of the weeks he spent with the co-workers who, like him, knew they were being fired, "the hundreds of us there, used to be best friends, working together, counting on one another, not even thinking about it, we always knew we could rely on each other right on down the line. But it was the end of the line, and we were enemies now, because we were competitors now, and we all knew it."
The unspoken subject of The Ax is that Burke's murderous project is a smaller-scale version of the corporate behavior around him. Companies that are not eradicating each other in mergers and acquisitions are eradicating the people who stand in the way of their making higher profits, even if they are the people who allowed them to make any profit in the first place.
Mark Athitakis, who quoted the same excerpt I did, wondered if Westlake's motivation in writing THE AX was less about making covert political statements about the Reagan Era (thus foreshadowing what was to come with Bush I and II) and more self-serving: "perhaps he was simply sublimating concerns about losing his lofty perch in the crime-fiction pantheon?" Maybe, but those questions were addressed far more covertly in A LIKELY STORY and THE HOOK, two other favorites of mine. THE HOOK, especially, nails the plight of the midlist writer dependent on "the computer" and, taking this to its logical and satirical conclusion, of course takes on a Highsmithian vibe a la STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. And being published in 2000 this predated BookScan, which has solidified the need for midlist writers to reinvent themselves with new names to beat bad numbers even more.
But going back to THE AX, it's also helpful to look to an interview Westlake gave to the Washington Post's Blaine Harden around the time of the book's publication, in which he goes into the comparison and contrast between the Depression and what was the now of twelve years ago:
Nothing blunts the sting of "The Ax." In explaining why, he points out that the book is dedicated to his father, Albert Joseph Westlake (1896-1953), a man who knew from downsizing.
"All the time I was growing up, he was marginal and white-collar, a bookkeeper, a clerk with New York State," Westlake says. "Growing up in Albany, we knew people who were frankly poor. If you are frankly poor, then, well, that's it. If you are poor white-collar, it is pretending. It is putting on a good front and there is stress all the time."
When Westlake began reading newspaper stories about corporate downsizing a couple of years ago, he thought, "This is exactly what my parents' lives were like." But Westlake saw a sinister distinction between what his father went through in the 1930s and what downsized middle managers are being forced to endure at the end of the century.
"The difference being everybody went through the Depression together. So it was like boot camp for everybody. Where now, the people who this is happening to are isolated," says Westlake, noting that downsizing grinds on even as the economy booms, unemployment falls and the stock market soars.
Obviously things are different now: the dotcom boomed and busted, the housing bubble ballooned and popped, and the unemployment rate is high enough to inspire a certain sense of togetherness even as the reality is that isolation is the likelier choice. But to say THE AX lacks satire, as Taylor does, misses the boat: the satire is there, but it just grows more vicious with the passage of time. And that, more than anything, is why it ought to be considered "a classic American novel waiting to be discovered."