Donald Westlake’s “The Comedy is Finished”

Crime media often require the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Television shows like CSI, NCIS, The Mentalist — basically most CBS prime-time programs — can credit their success to their viewer’s willingness to do this — to understand that, yes, it is 8:48 pm and there are only twelve minutes remaining in the program; for them to be aware that there will probably be a commercial break at 8:50, a return at 8:53, one final swerve at 8:54, a clean resolution at 8:57, and the credits at 8:59.

This routine does not become at all monotonous; instead, quite exciting! As much as the characters are under duress to solve the case or catch the killer, so too is the audience, counting down the minutes. It’s a weird little meta-exercise. How will they catch the perp? There’s only nine minutes left before Undercover Boss! This formula is so formulaic because it’s oft-repeated, and it’s oft-repeated because it works.  Not just on television, but in books, movies, etc.

Donald Westlake was a crime writer. When he died in 2008, he had over one hundred publications to his name — some published in pseudonym — and some impressive awards. Wikipedia tells me that Westlake was named a “Grand Master” by the Mystery Writers of America; the same source calling that honor the “highest honor bestowed by the society.” (And, that information aside, award names don’t really get more honorable than “Grand Master,” do they?)

Insofar as Westlake is a crime writer, I am not a crime reader. It’s a full disclosure that I think is healthy and necessary, because it’s a genre unlike any other. A formula so simple and successful — simple in that Westlake and others publish so many books, successful in that they sell so many books.

So I’m saying that I’m not one of those people who devours crime fiction on a regular or even sporadic basis. Simultaneously, I’m saying that I’m familiar enough with the genre — and respectful enough, I should hope — that I won’t harshly judge The Comedy is Finished for issues that are totally and solely related to the genre (dun-dun-dun endings to each chapter, pieces fitting together too well, etc.). I will try to consider what it is readers hope to get out of reading a crime novel — excitement, surging heart rate, etc. — and how well Westlake does at that. But, then again, I won’t pen Westlake and his genre in some small, reductive territory that separates his literature from other types of literature. In other words, I won’t be a high-brow asshole and act like Westlake is any less a writer than Annie Proulx. Crime fiction is fiction, and should be reviewed as any other piece — with specific caveats, but none so large that they may dominate the review.

Maybe I’m trying to beat eggs with a pencil while walking a tightrope with my eyes closed; I don’t know.

The Comedy is Finished is something of a lost novel, a time capsule from the late seventies, never published but oddly complete. It tells the story of show-business veteran Koo Davis, a comedian kidnapped by a group of five post-Vietnam radicals looking to get their movement back on track. Davis’ status as an American icon — and a schmoozer of army officials, having been on many USO tours — makes him an attractive pawn for negotiation.

Davis is in the twilight of his career, worn down by constant travel and fast living. Despite this, his natural reaction to any and all challenges posed by the radicals — who call themselves the People’s Revolutionary Army — is a one-liner or some other “gag.” Naturally, this gives the book something of a light-hearted feel in the early going: five not-all-there hippies kidnap an old man game for humor and teasing. Though the PRA’s threats seem real — they want ten political prisoners released or they will kill Davis — they seem more likely to crumble under the pressure than to actually commit murder.

But Davis’ health soon deteriorates, and Westlake delves further into the individual personalities that make up the People’s Revolutionary Army. There’s Larry the Scholar, Liz the Object, Mark the Psycho, Peter the Leader, and Joyce the Mother. The more we learn about the PRA, the more dire Davis’ situation seems, as the five aren’t totally on the same page — all with differing hopes and dreams and methods — making it more likely that Davis might wind up on the shore, his flesh picked apart by birds.

The Comedy is Finished, unfortunately, goes off the rails from here. There are three main issues holding it back, all of which I hope to cover in some degree.

First, there is Westlake’s depiction of women in The Comedy is Finished. While Davis’ agent Lynsey Rayne is a competent, bold, whip-smart character at first — trading barbs with the FBI agent assigned to the case — her motives soon become clear: she cares so much for Davis because they went to bed a few times and she’s still lovesick. Davis’ estranged wife, meanwhile, is emotionally absent and largely cold. Joyce and Liz are generally airy: the former acting like some doting mother throughout, the latter walking around naked for the hell of it.

Sexual encounters with women, too, aren’t well-handled. When Liz — who, remember, walks around naked most of the time — wants to show Davis what the Movement is all about — why she feels it’s important to be an independent woman in an equal society — she lifts her dashika and masturbates in his presence, bringing herself to orgasm almost immediately. (The narration hams up the absurdity, Westlake likening the movement of Liz’s fingers to mechanics on a train set.) Later, when Liz is kinda-sorta sexually assaulted by a fellow member of the PRA, she is almost immediately (again) brought to orgasm. It seems this naked hippie might accomplish something if she didn’t sit around getting off all the time!

And, in general, the book is dominated by men with an excess of conviction. The women, on the other hand, have identities that revolve around these men. Lynsey wants to have Koo again; Davis’ wife is emotionally ruined because Koo left her; Liz wants to touch herself in front of men; Joyce wants to make men scotch broth.

Second, there is the plot point — it might be called a twist — halfway through, where Davis learns his relationship with one of his captors is, shall we say, personal. It’s a hollow-but-heartfelt development, one meant to show the quality of the human spirit or the power of love or some such thing. Instead, it seems gratuitous and cheap against the backdrop of a believable situation — the kidnapping of a Hollywood icon by some post-Vietnam rebels who feel their movement lagging in the era of Ford-Carter — a trick on Davis’ part to make his readers forget about the real political tumult in late-seventies America.

Third, Westlake loses — or intentionally pitches — a crucial aspect of the plot in the second half, that is Davis’ relationship with Washington. Though we learn the real reason (dun-dun-dun) Davis is kidnapped (see qualm two), the threads fall to the ground once Westlake lets us in on what’s really (dun-dun-dun) going on.

But as a work of crime fiction, The Comedy is Finished does the job. It is at times funny, other times sad, but mostly exciting. Despite my qualms, I couldn’t help but wonder where Westlake would take things, and if Davis would survive. Our hero is complex and troubled and not anywhere near perfect, but we still root for him. Westlake is also a very vibrant writer, crafting (mostly) complete characters whose motives seem clear and understandable.

Further, general complaints about The Comedy is Finished can be shrugged off as the inevitable gaps and holes in a posthumous publication. Were Westlake to see his work through, maybe he’d have a change of heart about the female characters, the plot twist, and the book’s second half.

Still, I like to think that a writer’s legacy — especially in unpublished works — is still subject to scrutiny after death. The reviewer-author contract may have a few more sentences in the fine print, but it’s still there. It’s still necessary for the reviewer to look at a work for what it is.

And what do I see? A crime novel that excites but offends. A time capsule in many ways: a story long lost, unearthed to the delight of many Westlake fans. Much of its content, however, might be better off collecting dust.

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8 thoughts on “Donald Westlake’s “The Comedy is Finished”

  1. Chris says:

    I haven’t read this particular Westlake yet, but I have to say this wasn’t a very persuasive review, and you were ill-advised to spend so much of it seeming to apologize for reviewing a crime novel. Dostoevsky wrote crime novels–in which people also often behaved in odd and questionable (and downright psychotic) ways. The notion that it’s a writer’s job to make his characters behave well, and to observe certain protocols (even if they’re outsiders, would be revolutionaries, and–you know–criminals) seems–curious. Surely the point of writing a novel about such people is that they don’t behave just like everybody else. By going to the extremes of human behavior, you learn a lot about human nature. You also tend to keep the reader’s attention.

    FYI, Westlake didn’t publish this novel because some time after he’d written it, a Martin Scorsese movie called “King of Comedy” came out, which had some plot elements he thought were so similar to his story that it would look like he was ripping off Scorsese. Though of course he hadn’t–and Scorsese would have had no idea about Westlake’s unpublished book at the time–the screenplay was written by somebody else, and handed to him by Robert DeNiro.

    In that movie, which remains greatly admired by critics to this day, people also behave oddly, and there isn’t a single character, male or female, who would serve as a good role model.

    I think you kind of missed the point. But it may well be that it’s not one of Westlake’s best books. He wrote some of the best books anybody wrote in the 20th Century, and my advice is you go check out more of them, and not worry so much about what genre they’re in.

    Good writing isn’t about being PC. By which I mean that a writer shouldn’t worry about offending people–of any political bent, right or left. If you’re not offending anybody, you’re probably not a very interesting writer.

    • dbcreads says:

      Well, all right. I wasn’t apologizing for reviewing a crime novel, but covering my own ass if passersby—such as yourself—thought that I was unfair to Westlake. I’m not a crime reader—as I stated—but I wanted to give the book a fair shake, trying to approach it from different perspectives, putting on different hats, etc. If it at all seemed like I was being a dick or acting apologetic for deigning to read a crime novel, then I’m sorry; not my intention at all.

      Given that you haven’t read the novel, I won’t spoil things for you—i.e. certain plot points that made me roll my eyes into my brain.

      As to this PC/behavior stuff: not my concern. I don’t give a shit how characters act in terms of acceptability or correctness, or where along the spectrum of human behavior they may fall. If one of the revolutionaries had chopped off Koo Davis’ arm and cooked the meat into a delicious cassoulet, I wouldn’t protest. I’d probably be enthralled.

      Rather, I just noticed that every woman in the book is motivated either by male-driven heartsickness or the need for orgasm. When a female character is unwillingly forced into a sex act, but in the end reaches climax—apparently clitoral stimulation to orgasm is not about opting in—it’s worth noting.

      You’re right. I agree that good writing isn’t about being PC. Having real, dimensional female characters isn’t about political correctness, however. It’s about good writing.

      And I don’t doubt Westlake’s pedigree—he was a talented writer, as The Comedy is Finished (sometimes) shows.

  2. Chris says:

    I’d want to read the passages in question before even trying to defend them. And maybe you ought to read more Westlake before presuming to know his attitudes towards women? Might be more complicated than you think. Just like women’s attitude towards sex might be.

    If every woman in a fictional story has to stand for all women………and yet the same standard is not applied to male characters–well, a whole lot of great books could be criticized on the same terms. And have been. I mean, is “Jane Eyre” anti-woman? She marries the guy who was keeping his crazy wife locked in the attic, and they live happily ever after? “Wide Sargasso Sea” took a rather jaundiced view of that love story, but Emily Bronte stays on the required reading lists all the same.

    Have you heard of the Manson Family? Patti Hearst and the SLA? If you’d read those as fictional stories, what would your reaction have been to the way the women were written? Why do women willingly join polygamist Mormon cults, and stay with them, when they could get the cult leaders imprisoned with a phone call? Did it occur to you that Westlake was not portraying women living anything resembling a ‘normal’ lifestyle? That he was getting into the heads of people who don’t live in the same world we do?

    Based on what you’re saying, it sounds to me more like Westlake was conveying some negative opinions of certain aspects of 60’s-70’s era revolutionary movements in America–and yes, women in those groups did tend to be satellites of the men. But my experience of Westlake thus far is that his barbs tend to cut in all directions. “The Ax” is probably the most chilling critique of modern capitalism anyone’s ever written.

    Parenthetically, the ‘dun-dun-duns’ are something you might want to reconsider as a technique for conveying sarcastic effect.

    • Chris says:

      Charlotte Bronte, sorry. Though honestly, how is Catherine in “Wuthering Heights” any better, given that she can’t stay away from the bad boy, even if it kills her?

      Jane Austen’s women think about little but marriage (and money).

      Flaubert would be considered a writer sympathetic to women, and so would Leo Tolstoy, and their most famous female characters are unfaithful wives who end up committing suicide.

      I’m fairly certainly this novel doesn’t rise to the level of the novels I’ve just mentioned (and that Westlake wouldn’t say that it did), but it’s not exactly presenting itself as a novel about women–it seems to be about an absurd dangerous situation involving absurd dangerous people. Some of whom are women, and I can’t escape the notion that Westlake could have avoided much of your posthumous critical ire simply by not putting any women in the book.

    • dbcreads says:

      Well, I think you’re arguing against something I didn’t posit. And you’re arguing about a book you haven’t read.

      I don’t think that the book is representative—at large—of Westlake’s accomplishments as a writer, or his views toward women. And I understand that his critiques go in every direction—and, of course, one might view the aloofness of all members of the PRA in The Comedy is Finished as evidence of that.

      What I’m saying about the women in this work isn’t restricted to the women of the PRA. As I said in the review, every woman is either driven by male-driven heartsickness or a need for climax. Koo Davis’ agent, Lynsey, is a good example. She’s a hard-working trailblazer, of sorts, and is relentless in her pursuit to ensure that the police and federal agents involved in the case don’t muck it up. She’s showing the boys how it’s done—all because Koo’s her client and, well, she cares about her clients; a totally believable hook: the idea that this woman would forsake sleep and food and all normalcy just to make sure she’s on the scene for all decisions re: Koo. But Westlake eventually reveals Lynsey’s true motive, that she slept with Koo many years ago—when she was younger, more his type—and though there is no current tension between the two, the event still burns her in a very real way.

      Yes, a very real possibility. And in isolation, not a totally grating plot point. But this portrayal of Lynsey coupled with all the other female characters—those in the PRA and those not—is dismaying.

      But I’m not arguing that this is somehow evidence of Westlake’s disdain for women, or that the characters are stand-ins for the broad Woman. I’m just saying that the women in The Comedy is Finished—again, all the women, each possessing different interests and feelings and experiences—are, as you said, “satellites” of the men. I found it tiresome, and stated my reasons.

      Of course I understand the rich history of unflattering characters in the classics. What I’m trying to grasp is why you think I was so hard on the book. I think I was rather fair, stating my qualms, but ultimately coming down on the fact that The Comedy is Finished, were it to go through the usual editorial hoops, would have been a different book all together.

  3. Chris says:

    All fair points, but here’s another of mine–you probably don’t want to start your acquaintance with an author of Westlake’s stature by reading a novel he didn’t see fit to publish in his lifetime, that as you yourself acknowledge, he might well have reworked substantially prior to publication if he hadn’t shelved it. No reason to assume he didn’t think it was any good, since we know he had other reasons, but to me it seems likely that if he’d thought it was one of his best works, he’d have gotten it out there some time after the Scorsese film had left theaters.

    He published over a hundred novels in his life, not all of which are gems, but some of which are really quite remarkable–and nearly all of which are deeply engrossing.

    I wasn’t familiar with your blog until a Westlake-themed blog referred me to it. I understood going in that it wasn’t going to be an entirely favorable review, and even his biggest fans have been known to pan individual novels of his.

    Having read more of your reviews, I understand you seem to mainly review newly published books. And that’s why this is your first review of a Westlake novel, because it was just published for the first time, decades after it was written, and a little over three years after his death.

    It’s just–why bother?

    I guess I found it kind of irritating, having started reading Westlake with growing fascination in the recent past, and I’m honestly not seeing much evidence of you being inclined to give bad reviews in general. You mainly seem to review books you find to be of considerable merit. And here’s one of the best and most prolific authors of the past half century or so, and you’re nit-picking one of the few of the scores of books he wrote that he chose NOT to share with the world.

    But of course, it’s better to be critiqued than ignored. And I have not ignored you. 😉

    • dbcreads says:

      I’ll admit that by being late to the game I’m not getting the proper Westlake experience. Perhaps I’ll read him later in life; I don’t know. And I won’t tiptoe around the fact that I didn’t put a ton of thought into the decision to review Westlake. A PR person sought out the blog, asked, and I agreed. (We are, admittedly, trying to branch out in 2012. I recently reviewed a book on the British Empire—though that was my concentration in college—and will soon review a book about the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama/liberal American Jews.)

      I understand your irritation. But we’re a new blog! We’ve only been around since September (I think?) and, perhaps down the line, we’ll spend more time on Westlake. His whip-smart prose certainly intrigued me; the storyline, however, did not—but that doesn’t mean another work of his won’t hit me right.

  4. Chris says:

    Ah, so that’s why you reviewed it–thanks for clearing up the mystery. And if you like mysteries, try a Mitch Tobin novel sometime. I’d recommend “A Jade In Aries” except I’m afraid I already know what would bother you about that one. And that’s all I’m saying on the subject. 😉

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