The Comedy is Finished by Donald Westlake
Hard Case Crime
This book breaks my heart for two reasons. One, it’s probably the last Donald Westlake novel we’ll ever see unless they find another last lost manuscript by the master, which I hope for daily. Westlake’s work is a joy whether it’s one of his standalone novels, a laugh-out-loud humorous Dortmunder scheme, or a Richard Stark/Parker tale hardboiled enough to peel the skin from your face.
To add to that overall sadness is the fact that Westlake never got to see the book published in his lifetime despite the fact that this first-rate novel was written some thirty years ago. Westlake thought that the subject matter too closely resembled Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which hit the big screen shortly after Westlake completed The Comedy is Finished.
Set in the late 70s, the novel is an edgy suspense thriller about a kidnapping gone wildly wrong (do kidnappings ever go right?). When aging, acclaimed, right-winger comedian Koo Davis is snatched by members of a social revolution that’s grown passe, ideologies clash dangerously with Koo’s life on the line. Ironically imprisoned in a ritzy Hollywood home, Koo constantly cracks wise in order to keep his spirits up in the face of his often enraged, depressed, and possibly insane captors.
The novel is rife with unexpected scenes of great emotional power and poignancy. As the FBI’s chief investigator nicely sums up, the revolutionaries might’ve once been considered heroes, but the movement itself lost its way. The young captors try to hold onto their purity of vision even while they slowly come to realize how foolish their attempts at revolt have become. Foolish, deadly, and probably meaningless as their fight for a lost cause pushes them toward greater and greater extremes. As the story unfolds Koo learns that one member of the People’s Revolutionary Army may have a completely different grievance against him, one that might change Koo’s own outlook on life. You just don’t expect a razor-wire read like this to be so full of feeling.
To my mind, Westlake could have easily changed his protagonist from a comedian to any other entertainment personage and just given the guy an overdeveloped funny bone. The fact that he’s a comedian isn’t as important as that he’s a celebrity with some wit. But for someone like Westlake, who had hit series on his hands, screenwriting gigs, and an Oscar to win (for the screenplay of THE GRIFTERS), I suppose he just didn’t mind laying the manuscript on a closet shelf while keeping busy with so much else on his plate. In any event, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is a perfect capper to a brilliant career.
Edge of Dark Water by Joe Lansdale
We all know Joe Lansdale can do it all. He’s written thrillers, westerns, young adult, and horror novels, as well as fusions containing elements of each. His latest, EDGE OF DARK WATER, is more or less one of these composites that gives a perfect arena to Lansdale’s strengths as a classic storyteller.
When teenaged May Lynn’s body is pulled from the Sabine River tied to an old sewing machine, her friends Sue Ellen, Jinx, and Terry take it upon themselves to give her a proper fond farewell. They decide to burn her remains and carry the ashes to Hollywood, a place where pretty May Lynn always believed she would someday become a movie star. The adventurous trio, along with Sue Ellen’s alcoholic mother, steal a raft and escape from town with some stolen loot, barely ahead of Sue Ellen’s abusive step-father and several other cretinous, criminal characters. As their trip unfolds they run across an odd array of broken and lamentable folks, including a preacher with a horrible guilty secret and an ancient crone with no reason to live except passing on her bitterness. They also learn that Skunk, a legendary beast of a man raised in the river bottoms who’ll commit any atrocity he’s hired to do, may be on their heels.
Despite the novel being set during the Depression, the story has a certain timeless nature. We get the feeling that this tale could almost have taken place at any period between the 1880s and the 1980s. East Texas remains as dark and romanticized as Hannibal, Missouri, full of wonder and possibility, thick with traps and villains.
This is a sharp, incisive, fun tale showing Lansdale’s fortitude at roping the reader into an impressive, alluring narrative. The flaws of our protagonists are what make them so sympathetic and relatable, their journey such an earnest and archetypal one. Even though this is only January, I’m certain EDGE OF DARK WATER will wind up on top ten of ‘12 lists come a year from now.
By the way, look for my interview with Joe in the first online issue of the new ezine The Big Click edited by Nick Mamatas, premiering in March.
- Tom Piccirilli
- "We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters
I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com