The more things change, the more they stay the same . . .
This is not a comment about Donald E. Westlake’s chilling novel from 1997, the work under consideration today. Instead, it is a comment about the subject matter he tackled in that particular volume and its relationship to today. The Ax is a horror story. At the novel’s heart is not the bloody, beating heart of a supernatural shocker in the small town beset by an intrusive monster mold established by Stephen King’s early work. Instead, Westlake returns once more to the wellspring of Robert Bloch psychological terror to pen a tale of human ugliness that stems from a more-or-less believable and relatable source.
Bloch is best known, of course, for the novel Psycho, but he was also the father of that brand of horror stemming from broken psychologies (as well as one hell of a fun pulp horror writer in his younger days, when he was a pen pal with H. P. Lovecraft). As it turns out, Bloch was also no stranger to humor in his fiction. His non-supernatural horror stories often focused on individuals caught in desperate circumstances that either pressured delicate psyches into shattering, leading those characters down a path of violence, or the circumstances put them in the middle of another’s violent road (ala Marion Crane in the aforementioned Psycho). Here, we find the former case. It is not a case of madness from the outset that sets the main character of this first person novel to his bloody road of murder (as in, say, Jim Thomspon’s The Killer Inside Me), it is desperation of the direst sort and a terrifying ability for rationalization.
Burke Devore had a good job in the paper industry—not the newspapers, but the actual production of the material itself—and had achieved a middle management role when the RIFs hit. RIF, for those who are not involved in a company job, stands for reductions in force. It’s the euphemism given to layoffs to try and remove some of the sting (from the name at least). However, the topic is still a toothy one, since it is robbing folks of their livelihoods.
Devore has a solid resume, but he has been out of work for years, now. His family is pulling the belt tight, his wife is working part time at a local dentist office, doing his books (not far removed from John Dortmunder’s gal May who works part time at a grocery store). Devore hates the idea of his woman working; however, he has no prospects. There are too many applicants you see. The industry has been laying off people across the board, and all those hungry mouths and reaching hands are stifling Devore’s opportunities to find gainful employment. So, he gets an idea.
Why not level the playing field? He puts a fake ad in one of the trade magazines and lets the resumes roll in. Intelligence shows him plenty of candidates—hundreds, in fact—who are on par with him (or perhaps even better, at least on paper) so he then finds himself nurturing another idea. Why not remove some of the potentials, the ones with better resumes than his own? The prospects that live close to him are the ones that employers will look at without worry about relocation. He winnows the hundreds of resumes down to a handful. Then, he gets his Dad’s old war trophy Luger out of storage, cleans it up, test fires it, and then goes a’hunting.
Novels appearing under Westlake’s own name have run the gamut of mood, from the comic capers Dortmunder and his gang pull, to sober crime thrillers that appeared early in his career, to the incendiary one offs he wrote to explore stories aimes to curdle the blood instead of rousing giggles. Pity Him Afterwards was a direct Robert Blochian human horror story pastiche about a killer hiding out amongst a summer theater group, and it was not a completely successful novel on its own. Sacred Monster also drew from that particular wellspring, presenting a tale of one man’s madness and comedy that would have made the old master grin. Novels that appeared under his pseudonyms also run the gamut of mood and tone, from the Hollywood satires he wrote as Samuel Holt to the grim crime tales appearing under the name Richard Stark. 1997’s The Ax finds an ordinary man slipping into a dark, dark place and discovering the depths he possesses as he embraces the role of murderer. It is equal parts Westlake’s crime-horror pieces as focused through a grim Richard Stark lens. It might come as no surprise, then, to discover that the author’s infamous pseudonym had returned to a by-line at this point. (Next up in the author’s releases would be the first of a new set of Parker novels.)
The Ax is a nasty little story about a nasty little topic, but the nastiest of them is the underlying pretense, which still plagues industrial work to this day. It is the topic that led to the statement kicking off this piece. Let me explain why I wrote “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
This is a novel that hits me in a sweet spot. Fun personal fact: My day job involves technological research and development for the oil and gas industry. I started in this particular industry about seven years ago (prior to that I participate in academic research as well as independent contract work) and soon after my first foray in, a RIF cycle kicked off. Each year after seemed to welcome in yet another RIF cycle. The tail end of 2014 turned out to be a particularly bad year for my industry, and though it has seen a few high marks since then it has never really recovered. So, Westlake’s perceptions on the topic (circa 1997) are still pretty spot on accurate. Here is what dedicated work will give you back then:
The severance package was certainly generous enough, I suppose, within what is considered generous and rational at the moment. We discontinued employees received a lump sum equal to one month of salary for every two years of employment, at the present wage for that employment. In my case, since I’d been with the company twenty years, four as sales director and sixteen as product manager, I received ten monts’ pay, two of them at a somewhat lower rate. In addition, the company offered to maintain our medical insurance—we pay twenty percent of our medical costs, but no insurance premiums—for one year for every five years of employment, which means four years in my case. Full coverage for Marjorie and me, plus coverage for Billy for two and a half years until he’s nineteen; Betsey’s already nineteen, and so is uninsured, another worry.
But that isn’t all we got when we were severed. There was also a single flat payment to cover vacation time, sick time and who knows what; it was figured out using a madly complex formula that I’m sure was scrupulously fair, and my check came to four thousand, seven hundred sixteen dollars and twenty-two cents. To tell the truth,if it had been nineteen cents, I doubt I would have known the difference. (20-21)
These days (or at least in my particular industry), the package payout has shifted to 1 week per year served, but those companies got to save their costs! Of course, a statement of these bold and bald-faced facts are not Westlake’s only word on the matter. He offers a trenchant observation about the reduction of the middle class via middle management jobs through such cogent, clear observations as this, put into the mouth of one of Devore’s targets:
“You know, I been thinking about it,” he says. “I haven’t had much to do, the last couple years, except think about it, and I think this society’s gone nuts.”
“The whole society?” I shrug and say, “I thought it was just the bosses.”
“To let the bosses do it,” he says. “You know, there’s been societies, like primitive peoples in Asia and like that, they expose newborn babies on hillsides to kill them, so they won’t have to feed them and take care of them. And there’s been societies, like the early Eskimos, that put their real old folk on icebergs to float away and die, because they couldn’t take care of them any more. But this is the first society ever that takes its most productive people, at their prime, at the peak of their powers, and throws them away. I call that crazy.” (103-104)
This is a topic I have grappled with while playing witness to the passage of workers who are knowledgeable and solidly invested in these roles. If I am being completely honest then I have to confess I did not join this industry for upward movement; I go day after day strictly for the insurance. Salary is lovely, additional benefits are nice, but the job is not a passion for me. It is just a job. I am more in line with one of Westlake’s characters, Jack Ingersoll from Trust Me On This and Baby, Would I Lie?, who often espouses the sad fact that all jobs are temporary and therefore come to an end. And yet, I seem to remain and succeed while the ones who want all the upward mobility and opportunities, who want to be there long term falter. This weird game of push-you/pull-me is the occupational equivalent of that old gag about the folks desperate to find love are often the loneliest while the folks who don’t really care about succeeding regularly find new bedmates. How sad that the state of industry has not changed or improved all that much, 20+ years later. If anything, the rot has only spread.
Isn’t it fascinating how a book can play on our own experiences so strongly, decades after it first appeared?
The fact that Devore understands these concepts, but he still targets his fellow workforce members is telling and the real horrifying tragedy here. The murders of workers who are just as down on their luck as he is—if they could get the jobs he is applying for, then why are they still out of work in the first place?—is chilling.
Oh, I knew all that when I started. I knew who the enemy was. But what good does it do me? If I were to kill a thousand stockholders and get away with it clean, what would I gain? What’s in it for me? If I were to kill seven chief executives, each of whom had ordered the firing of at least two thousand good workers in healthy industries, what would I get out of it?
What it comes down to is, the CEOS, and the stockholders who put them there, are the enemy, but they are not the problem. They are society’s problem, but they are not my personal problem.
These six resumes. These are my personal problem. (65)
Devore knows that the real instigators of his problems are management, are the companies themselves, but they do not provide nice and easy targets for his frustrations and aggressions. He convinces himself that his course of action is right, so therefore he does not need to question it. He does not need to reconsider.
The Ax is a cold-blooded book, all right. A transition novel from the past few humorous works (and the Sam Holt satires) into a more productive stage in Westlake’s career. Over the next twelve years he would release another seventeen works, stopping only because his body gave out while on vacation. Even death would not stop the Westlake momentum, however, since another three more novels would wait in the wings for posthumous release through the Hard Case Crime imprint.
The Ax is a mean book, and it would pave the way for another dark satire to come, the slightly more humorous The Hook, which does for publishing what the Sam Holt novels did for television/filmmaking. However, it is a savage tale all on its own and one worth digging into. There is plenty to consider between this novel’s covers, and chills aplenty at the remorseless and relentless world the protagonist occupies. In that regard, The Ax is not simply a work in the vein of Robert Bloch, it is a work that stands shoulder to should to one of Bloch’s best protégé’s, the horror/suspense writer David J. Schow.
The Ax is available in eBook format. Hardcover and paperback artifact editions are relatively easy to locate with a cursory search, but there are no such editions in print at the moment.
Next up in the Considering Westlake reading series is a return to Westlake’s most famous (infamous?) pseudonym. After a thirty year hiatus, Richard Stark returned to bookstands with Comeback. That book is available in eBook and paperback editions (thanks to the University of Chicago Press) as well as an audiobook.
However, the Considering Westlake series will see a bit of a delay. Next week, we will delve into a little something different, considering the first of the newest series of thriller novellas from Dean Koontz. The Nameless stories are Amazon.com kindle and audiobook originals, telling the tale of a dangerous operator who moves through a dark world, setting things right where he can. In the Heart of the Fire (kindle/audiobook) is a quick, brutal read that recalls Richard Stark and Jim Thompson and fits into our overview of Westlake, strangely enough. Grab a copy today.
Westlake, Donald E. The Ax. Mysterious Press: 1997.
“Considering Westlake: The Ax” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Warner Books paperback, which was issued in 1998.