August 25, 2009
Book Review: "The Ax" by Donald E. Westlake
Title: The Ax
Author: Donald E. Westlake
Publisher: Warner Books, Inc. (1997)
Okay, now I get what all the praise was about with this book. This was a darned fine read and managed to exceed my expectations.
I'm a reader who is always on the lookout for quality novels. I'm not on the "new release bandwagon," so I look for those must-reads of yesteryear--I am playing catch-up with everyone else, after all. I think I first saw The Ax recommended in Stephen King's On Writing. It was one of dozens of books listed, but the diminutive title jumped out at me. I never hurried myself in finding it, though. Then, I started seeing more and more praise for this specific Westlake novel, to the point where I had to finally get myself a copy. I lucked out at a hole-in-the-wall shop.
The story is about and narrated by Burke Devore. Burke is unemployed, two years on the hunt for another job in the paper mill managerial racket, with bills and family strife starting to rack up and wear his down. He's straitlaced, skilled (albeit stringently to the paper mill industry), and plays by the rules. He's also past his prime, and he knows it.
After two long years without a job, Burke realizes the odds are stacked against him and other men in similar situations. More and more people are getting laid off to appease corporate interests, and what few jobs remain are being sought after by younger workers and fellow experienced hands alike. Burke needs an edge. And when he sees his dream job staring him in the face, and sees the man currently employed in "his" job, Burke decides he's going to create his own opportunity.
Burke's going to kill him.
But, first he needs to be sure he's the logical replacement, Burke sets out to list the names of a few unemployed men he considers his strongest competition ... and kill them first.
The lengths Burke Devore goes to through this descent into madness is captivating. Westlake takes an insane idea and uses Burke's voice throughout the novel to rationalize it to the point where I was rooting for him more than once. It's at once a comical satire on a recessionary environment and a dark, disturbing glimpse at how far one man will go to ensure his own family's livelihood.
To say the man is downtrodden would not be enough. If the torment of joblessness isn't enough for him, his marriage is on the rocks, and his teenage son is taking a dark path as well. The man's story is a tragedy, and while you may hope for the best and even sympathize with a few justified homicides, the end result can't be all that happy. Can it?
I don't want to spoil how the story plays out for people interested in reading this novel. The destination takes a backseat to the journey with this one, and the praise for the novel is well deserved. I think anyone who has ever worked a day in their life can find something to grab onto, man or woman, young or old. You may be a proper person and play by the rules, but so was Burke Devore. And he ended up grabbing a gun when he reached the end of his rope.
And after you read this book, you might see someone you work with a little differently. I know I've met a couple people in my life that could be the inspiration for the main character of this novel. And that might be the scariest part of the story.