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.