By Donald E. Westlake
Mysterious. 273 pp. $23
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Unemployment Is MurderBy Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 22, 1997
The Washington Post
Burke Devore, once a middle-manager at a paper company, has been out of work for two years, and he's getting desperate. The corporate rage for downsizing, the pursuit of ever-greater profits no matter what the human cost, increasing computerization, unexpected mergers, callous MBAs and high-and-mighty corporate honchos -- these have cost him his job. Twenty years at Halcyon Mills, and what does he have to show for it? Ten months' severance pay, some useless retraining, a class in resume-writing. And he a guy barely past 50, with two kids, one in college. It's not fair.
Burke sends out application after application, but he might as well be dropping them in the trash. The strains of unemployment -- the spiritual desolation, a household empty of laughter and tenderness -- are beginning to wreck a once-happy family. Burke's wife, Marjorie, has taken two crummy part-time jobs. They've stopped having sex. None of this is fair. Burke's a good guy, a good manager; he knows everything about paper production. But it's just not enough.
"There are too many of us out here, and I have to face the fact that I am never going to be anybody's first choice. If it were just the job, just the knowledge and experience, just the capacity and the expertise, just the willingness and the proficiency, no problem. But there are too many of us going after too few jobs, and there are other guys out there just as experienced and willing and capable as I am, and then it comes down to the nuances, the ineffables.
"Amiability. Sound of voice. Smile. Whether or not you and your interviewer are fans of the same sport. What he thinks of your choice of necktie.
"There is always always always going to be somebody just that tiny bit closer to the ideal than I am. In this job market, they don't have to take the second best, and I have to either accept that fact or I'm going to be very unhappy for a very long time, and drag my family down with me. So I have to accept it, and I have to learn to work within it."
Once, Burke reasons, honor, grace or hard work was considered the highest value. "Today, our moral code is based on the idea that the end justifies the means. . . . Our government leaders always defend their actions on the basis of their goals. And every single CEO who has commented in public on the blizzard of downsizings sweeping America has explained himself with some variant on the same idea: The end justifies the means."
So, if the big boys can play this amoral game, why can't he? Burke wants to take care of his family, to be a productive member of society again, to use his hard-earned skills. If no one will give him a job, then he'll just have to go out and create one for himself.
By a stroke of good fortune, his father's old war souvenir, an eight-shot German luger, appears to be in perfect working order.
Burke's is a simple plan, really. First, identify the position desired, in this case that of product-line manager with Arcadia Paper. Next, determine who your likely rivals are. Kill them all. Finally, kill the current holder of the post you want. Having no other qualified candidates for the dead man's job, Arcadia will have to offer it to you. Inflexible logic.
Oh, there are a few possible hitches. Moral and psychological qualms about murder. Sympathy for fellow victims of corporate viciousness. Strategies that don't quite work out as intended. Police suspicions. Still, as Burke reminds himself, a husband and father simply cannot shirk his responsibilites. Just before eliminating one guy he's come to like, our hero admits, "I don't want to do this. But there are always things we don't want to do, and we do them." That's the undaunted spirit that made our country great.
Donald E. Westlake is justly celebrated as our leading comic crime novelist (the Dortmunder capers), but he's also written serious adventure fiction (Kahawa), lean paperback thrillers (as Richard Stark), and dozens -- scores? -- of other books under other names. Yet whatever his incarnation, Westlake knows precisely how to grab a reader, draw him or her into the story, and then slowly tighten his grip until escape is impossible. I suspect that most of the man's novels -- from the hilarious God Save the Mark to the noir classic The Hunter -- are read in a single sitting. In "The Ax," Westlake manages a tour de force of narrative immediacy by telling the story almost entirely in the first person, present tense: From murder to murder neither Burke nor the reader ever quite knows how things are going to turn out.
Although "The Ax" is an expertly entertaining suspense thriller -- a cousin to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and the film classic "Kind Hearts and Coronets," not to mention the Heinrich von Kleist novella "Michael Kohlhaas" -- it is also a complex morality tale, with real bitterness in every chapter. Should we regard Burke Devore as a monster, though we sympathize with his plight, even root for him to escape the law? Cogent arguments, as well as considerable passion, flow through his attacks on the heartlessness of corporate America. A company can destroy thousands of lives with a pink slip; Burke plans to destroy only six. And he doesn't even want to: He simply sees no alternative. For the sake of his children, for his marriage, for his own self-respect as a man, he has to have a job.
Still, there are certain unexpected developments. Burke discovers -- a pleasant surprise -- that murder is good for his character, instilling confidence, creating a can-do attitude toward all kinds of family and civic problems. When emergencies occur, he now knows how to handle them. He's ready.
Satirical, savage, fast-paced, "The Ax" filters everything through the consciousness of an out-of-shape Raskolnikov with bifocals. Burke Devore could be the unemployed guy next door, even the former colleague from down the hall. His story will make many readers past 40 deeply uneasy:
"You like that desk where you are? You say you've given the company your life, your loyalty, your best efforts, and you think the company owes you something in return? You say all you really want is to stay at your desk?
"Well, it isn't your desk. Clear it. The owner has realized he can make more money if he replaces you with another sheep."
Tell yourself that it's only fiction, nothing but a novel.
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company