By the time Donald E. Westlake died on the last day of 2008 at the age of 75, he had published more than 100 novels and several works of nonfiction. His novels include crime capers (the Dortmunder series) and hard-core noir (the Parker series), as well as dozens of stand-alones. He also wrote notable screenplays (“The Stepfather,” the Oscar-nominated “The Grifters”) and saw several of his novels made into successful movies (“Point Blank,” “Bank Shot,” “The Hot Rock”). He was part of a generation of writers — Ed McBain was another — who could grind out two or three books a year and somehow maintain a high level of excellence.
It isn’t surprising that such a writer would leave behind a posthumous book or two. One appeared in 2010, and now we have “The Comedy Is Finished,” which reached us in an especially roundabout manner. Westlake finished the novel in the early 1980s but decided not to publish it because he feared that its plot — the kidnapping of a famous comedian — might seem too much like Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film “The King of Comedy.” Fortunately, he’d sent a copy to a friend, the writer Max Allan Collins, and after Westlake’s death, Collins dug out the long-forgotten manuscript, which arrives as — possibly — Westlake’s last published work.
“The Comedy Is Finished” is one of the best Westlake novels I’ve read. I think it has one major problem that arises from its appearing three decades after it was written, but that won’t bother everyone. No dates are mentioned, but the story is clearly set in the late 1970s. Five Vietnam-era radicals — think of them as remnants of the Weathermen — kidnap a famous comedian called Koo Davis, who, like Bob Hope, is famous for his film comedies, USO shows and snarky humor. The terrorists announce that they’ll kill the supposedly beloved comedian unless the authorities release 10 other radicals from prison.
The story moves among the motley bunch of radicals; their wisecracking prisoner; a hard-drinking FBI man; Davis’s agent, who loves him; and his wife and sons, who don’t. This being a Westlake novel, there’s plenty of humor. The comedian, even facing death, spouts endless gallows humor. The vodka-fueled FBI agent is himself something of a clown. The terrorists are comic, too — holy fools perhaps — because Westlake captures the distance between their high-minded ideas and their idiotic acts. He understands that both they and their show-business captive inhabit fantasy worlds. Yet Davis is a fine, funny, cynical, desperate character; he’s a lovable rogue, and we keep reading to find out whether he can possibly survive the mess he’s in.
The problem is that the book would have resonated better 30 years ago; today it’s a time capsule. If you’re old enough to remember the Vietnam era, it will summon vivid, perhaps painful memories. But younger readers may recall little about the Weathermen — or, indeed, about Bob Hope — and may have no memories at all of Patty Hearst’s abduction, or kidnapping victims who had an ear sliced off, or townhouses where amateur bomb-makers perished, or young people who believed that free love, LSD and fiery rhetoric could bring on the revolution. Westlake’s 1970s terrorists may seem as distant as Sacco and Vanzetti to readers who grew up with the more immediate, more lethal dangers of the post-9/11 world.
Still, there’s pleasure to be found in this novel. It’s set in Los Angeles, and Koo Davis embodies the hypocrisies and absurdities of show business. The absurdities of political radicals, however, make no sense to him; he thinks they’re all nuts. The five kidnappers are nicely drawn. Peter imagines himself commander of the People’s Revolutionary Army; Larry dreams of a workers’ paradise and knows nothing of the world as it is; violence-prone Mark is ready to kill Davis to make a revolutionary statement. Of the two women, embittered Liz is given to LSD and casual sex, and Joyce is simply a lost soul. Yet before the story ends, each will surprise us.
Westlake erred in attempting an uplifting ending that doesn’t ring true, but “The Comedy Is Finished” remains an enjoyable read. I only wish it had reached us sooner. But my favorite Westlake novel is still “A Likely Story” (1984), in which a freelance writer and his editor cook up a sure-fire bestseller. Soon, of course, everything that could possibly go wrong does. It’s a hilarious look at the insanity of the publishing world and the freelance writer’s life. Westlake knew that insanity well and for a half-century managed to triumph over it. He lived by his wits.
Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Post.