When Burke Devore finds himself on his way to three years without work, he decides he has to do something drastic. Because his field of expertise is relatively narrow, he knows there aren’t that many people competing with him for jobs. But the competition is there, and he just doesn’t have any more time. So working from the cutthroat logic of late-capitalism, he decides his competitors ought to get the ax, permanently.
A few thoughts:
- This book is really dark, with a sympathetic narrator who crosses the line we wouldn’t, but does it so rationally that we can’t help empathizing, at least a little.
- We want Devore to succeed — his plight is so desperate — yet Westlake cleverly pushes us back and forth by showing that the men Devore murders are, essentially, copies of himself. Any one of them could have done the same thing. This overlap highlights the tenuous social contract we all make in living together.
- The book makes a brutal statement about the nature of 20th century late capitalism. Devore’s resentment at the way the owners cut corners to maximize profits resonates still today.
- The mental torment of being unemployed comes through very well in the book. It reminds me a bit of In Pursuit of Other Interests by Jim Kokoris, another book about a man in his middle age laid off and left floundering. By contrast to Devore, the advertising exec in that book had sunk entirely into his job, and had let his marriage and family fall to shambles. Then, when he got fired, he came around fully to face the terrible life he’d made for himself. In The Ax, Devore’s troubles spring entirely from being laid off, and the difficulties that placed on a middle-class family.
- The murders themselves are a mix of good planning and dumb luck, with the police always a possible danger in the background. The book keeps you guessing about what will happen right up to the end.
It’s really hard to decide whether this book is a dark comedy with pathos, or a tragedy with some comedic elements. Either way, it’s a good read. Recommended.