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Though he saw the co-workers dismissed along with him turn instantly from teammates to competitors, Burke Devore knew from the first that they weren't the cause of his misery; the real enemy was the bosses, the board of directors, the shareholders willing to do anything to squeeze every ounce of profit from the paper company that's laid him off. But there's nothing he can do about the enemy, he ruefully acknowledges after two years of anguish; the only way he can claw his way back to a job is to create a vacancy through homicide—having first identified and eliminated the half-dozen most likely fellow-managers he'll be competing with. So he prepares a list of the best-qualified people close enough to his Connecticut home to be realistic competitors; practices firing his ancient Luger; and sets out on a purposeful odyssey to eliminate them. Westlake, the unrivaled master of the formula caper comedy (What's the Worst That Could Happen?, 1996, etc.), rises effortlessly to the challenge of varying these executions, keeping up the tension—even though you know (or think you know) exactly what's going to happen every time—by interspersing them with vignettes of Devore's quietly ruined home life, as his wife, who's obviously taken up with another man, drags him to counseling and his teenaged son is picked up for burglary. What's missing is any sense of cumulative horror or revulsion as Devore, doggedly distancing himself from his targets by reviewing their resumés and thinking of them by their initials, methodically works to make his next job opportunity happen.
Though this lack of affect—especially in the chilly epilogue—is presumably Westlake's point, it sadly limits the range and psychological penetration of this grim '90s update of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Well, of course, I couldn't ask my father that, discuss it with him, not even if he were still alive, which he isn't, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely if not as efficiently as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.
The question, in any case, will answer itself, won't it? I mean, this is the sticking point. Either I can do it, or I can't. If I can't, then all the preparation, all the planning, the files I've maintained, the expense I've put myself to (when God knows I can't afford it), have been in vain, and I might as well throw it all away, run no more ads, do no more scheming, simply allow myself to fall back into the herd of steer mindlessly lurching toward the big dark barn where the mooing stops.
Today decides it. Three days ago, Monday, I told Marjorie I had another appointment, this one at a small plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that my appointment was for Friday morning, and that my plan was to drive to Albany Thursday, take a late afternoon flight to Harrisburg, stay over in a motel, taxi to the plant Friday morning, and then fly back to Albany Friday afternoon. Looking a bit worried, she said, "Would that mean we'd have to relocate? Move to Pennsylvania?"
"If that's the worst of our problems," I told her, "I'll be grateful."
After all this time, Marjorie still doesn't understand just how severe our problems are. Of course, I've done my best to hide the extent of the calamity from her, so I shouldn't blame Marjorie if I'm successful in keeping her more or less worry-free. Still, I do feel alone sometimes.
This has to work. I have to get out of this morass, and soon. Which means I'd better be capable of murder.
The Luger went into my overnight bag, in the same plastic bag as my black shoes. The Luger had been my father's, his one souvenir from the war, a sidearm he'd taken from a dead German officer that either he or someone else had shot, earlier that day, from the other side of the hedgerow. My father had removed the clip full of bullets from the Luger and transported it in a sock, with the gun itself traveling in a small dirty pillowcase he'd taken from a half-wrecked house somewhere in muddy France.
My father never fired that gun, so far as I know. It was simply his trophy, his version of the scalp you take from your defeated enemy. Everybody shot at everybody and he was still standing at the end, so he took a gun from one of the fallen.
I too had never fired that gun, nor any other. It frightened me, in fact. For all I knew, if I were to pull the trigger with the clip in place in the butt, the thing would blow up in my hands. Still, it was a weapon, and the only one to which I had ready access. And there was certainly no record of its existence, at least not in America.
After my father died his old trunk was moved from his spare room to my basement, the trunk containing his army uniform and folded duffel bag and a sheaf of the orders that had moved him from place to place, way back then, in the unimaginable time before I was born. A time I like to think of as simpler and cleaner than ours. A time in which you knew with clarity who your enemies were, and they were who you killed.
The Luger, in its pillowcase, was at the bottom of the trunk, beneath the musty-smelling olive-drab uniform, its clip lying beside it, no longer concealed in that long-ago sock. I found it down there, the day I made my decision, and brought it out, and carried gun and clip up to my "office," the small spare room we used to call the guest room before I was at home all the time and in need of an office. I closed the door, and sat at the small wood table I used as a desk-bought last year at a lawn sale offered by some particularly desperate householder about ten miles from here-and studied the gun, and it seemed to me clean and efficient-looking, without rust or obvious injury. The clip, this small sharp metal machine, felt surprisingly heavy. There was a slit up the rear of it, through which could be seen the bases of the eight bullets it contained, each with its little round blind eye. Touch that eye with the firing mechanism of the gun, and the bullet leaps off on its only journey.
Could I just insert clip into gun, point, and pull the trigger? Was there risk involved? Afraid of the unknown, I drove to the nearest bookstore, one of the chains, in a mall, and found a little manual on handguns, and bought it (another expense!). This book suggested I oil various parts, and so I did, with Three-in-One oil. The book suggested I try dry-firing the gun-pull the trigger without the clip or any bullets in place-and I did, and the click sounded authoritative and efficient. It seemed that I did have a weapon.
The book also suggested that fifty-year-old bullets might not be entirely trustworthy, and told me how to empty and reload the clip, so I went to a sporting goods store across the state line in Massachusetts and with no trouble at all bought a little heavy box of 9-millimeter bullets and brought them home, where I thumbed eight of them into the clip, pressing each sleek torpedo down against the force of the spring, then sliding the clip up into the open butt of the gun: click.
Fifty years this tool had lain in darkness, under brown wool, wrapped in a French pillowcase, waiting for its moment. Its moment is now.
I practiced with the Luger, driving away from home one sunny midweek day last month, April, driving thirty-some miles westward, across the state line into New York, until I found a deserted field next to a minor winding two-lane blacktop road. Hilly woods stretched upward, dark and tangled, beyond the field. There I parked the car on the weedy verge and walked out across the field with the gun a heavy weight in the inside pocket of my windbreaker.
When I was very close to the trees, I looked back and saw no one driving past on the road. So I took out the Luger and pointed it at a nearby tree and-moving quickly so as not to give myself time to be afraid-I squeezed the trigger the way the little book had told me, and it shot.
What an experience. Not expecting the recoil, or not remembering having read about the recoil, I wasn't prepared for how violently the Luger jumped upward and back, taking my hand with it, so that I almost hit myself in the face with the thing.
On the other hand, the noise wasn't as loud as I'd expected, not a great bang at all, but flatter, like an automobile tire blowout.
I did not, of course, hit the tree I was pointing at, but I did hit the tree next to it, making a tiny puff of dust as though the tree had exhaled. So the second time, now at least knowing the Luger was operational and wouldn't explode on me, I took more careful aim, with the standing stance the book had recommended, knees bent, body angled forward, both hands gripping the gun at arms' length as I sighted down the top of its barrel, and that time I hit exactly the spot on the tree I was aiming at.
Which was nice, but was somewhat spoiled by the fact that my concentration on aiming had made me again pay too little attention to recoil. This time, the Luger jumped out of my hands entirely and fell onto the ground. I retrieved it, wiped it carefully, and decided I had to conquer this matter of recoil if I were going to make use of the damn machine. For instance, what if I ever had to fire twice in a row? Not so good, if the gun is on the ground or, worse, up in my own face.
So once again I took the standing stance, this time aiming at a tree farther off. I clenched the grip of the Luger hard, and when I fired I let the recoil move my arm and then my whole body, so that I never really lost control of the gun. Its power trembled and shivered through my body, like a wave, and made me feel stronger. I liked it.
Of course, I was well aware that in giving all this attention to the physical details, I was not only providing proper weight to the preparation but was also avoiding, for as long as possible, any thought of the actual object of the exercise, the end result of all this groundwork. The death of a man. Though that would be faced soon enough. I knew it then, and I know it now.
Three shots; that was all. I drove back home, and cleaned the Luger, and oiled it again, and replaced the three missing bullets in the clip, and stored gun and clip separately in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, and didn't touch them again until I was ready to go out and see if I were actually capable of killing one Herbert Coleman Everly. Then I brought it out and put it into my overnight bag. And the other thing I packed, in addition to the usual clothing and toiletries, was Mr. Everly's resumé.
Herbert C. Everly
835 Churchwarden Lane
Fall City, CT 06198
MAJOR WORK Management
EXPERIENCE Responsible for in-flow of pulp paper from Canadian subsidiary. Coordinated functions of polymer manufacturing arm, Oak Crest Paper Mills, with Laurentian Resources (Can). Maintained delivery schedules for finished product to aerospace, auto, lighting and other industries. Oversaw 82-person manufacturing department, coordinated with 23-person delivery department.
Administration and Personnel
Interviewed and hired for department. Wrote employee analyses, recommended raises and bonuses, counseled employees where necessary.
23 years' experience, paper mills, paper products sales, with two corporations.
EDUCATION BBA, Housatonic Business College, 1969
REFERENCE Human Resources Division
Kriegel-Ontario Paper Products
PO Box 9000
Don Mills, Ontario
There's an entire new occupation these days in our land, a growth industry of "specialists" whose function is to train the freshly unemployed in job-hunting, and specifically how to prepare that all-important resumé, how to put that best foot forward in the increasingly competitive struggle to get a new job, another job, the next job, a job.
HCE has taken such an expert's advice, his resumé reeks of it. For instance, no photo. For those applicants over forty, one popular theory holds that it is best not to include a photo of oneself, in fact not to include anything at all that points specifically to the applicant's age. HCE doesn't even give the years of his employment, limiting himself only to two unavoidable clues: "23 years" and his college graduation in 1969.
Also, HCE is, or at least he wants to appear to be, impersonal and efficient and businesslike. He says nothing of his marital status, or his children, or his outside interests (fishing, bowling, what you will). He limits himself to the issues at hand.
It is not the best resumé I've seen, but it's far from the worst; about middling, I would say. About good enough to get him an interview, if some paper manufacturer should be interested in hiring a manager-level employee with an intense history in the production and sales of specialized polymer paper products. Good enough to get him in the door, I would say. Which is why he must die.
The point in all this is to be absolutely anonymous. Never to be suspected, not for a second. That's why I'm being so very cautious, why in fact I'm driving a good twenty-five miles toward Albany, actually crossing into New York State, before turning south to make my way circuitously back into Connecticut.
Why? Why such extreme care? My gray Plymouth Voyager is not after all particularly noticeable. I'd say it looks rather like one vehicle in five on the road these days. But what if, by some remote chance, some friend of ours, some neighbor of ours, some parent of a schoolmate of Betsy or Bill, happened to see me, this morning, eastbound in Connecticut, when Marjorie has been told I'll be westbound in New York or even airborne by now, toward Pennsylvania? How would I explain it?
Marjorie would think at first I was having an affair. Although-except for that one time eleven years ago that she knows about-I have always been a faithful husband, and she knows that, too. But if she thought I were seeing another woman, if she had any reason to question my movements and my explanations, wouldn't I eventually have to tell her the truth? If only to relieve her mind?
"I was off on a private mission," I would finally have to say, "to kill a man named Herbert Coleman Everly. For us, sweetheart."
But a secret shared is no longer a secret. And in any event, why burden Marjorie with these problems? There's nothing she can do beyond what she's doing, the little household economies she put into place the instant the word came I'd be laid off.
Yes, she did. She didn't even wait for my last day on the job, and she certainly wouldn't have waited until my severance pay was gone.
Excerpted from The Ax by Donald E. Westlake Copyright © 1997 by Donald Westlake. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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On August 11, 1997, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Donald Westlake, author of THE AX.
Donald Westlake: Thank you!
Donald Westlake: Sure.
Donald Westlake: Well, the mask, to begin with. With the opportunity to be other people comes the opportunity to try other things.
Donald Westlake: Not all of the names, but many of the names in the book have to do with death one way or another. For "Burke," one of the meanings is to strangle. And "Devore" is to devour. Another example in the book is "Longholme," in Massachusetts, and in old slang "the long home" is the grave.
Donald Westlake: I am hoping for more. I have not planned one yet. The pattern is that I write one Dortmunder book in three -- one Dortmunder and then two of something else. THE AX was the first "something else," then I will do something else before I mistreat poor John again.
Donald Westlake: It was a variety of things, including people I know who were downsized, and one woman I know -- an executive with a large organization -- whose job for the last four years has included the final interview with downsized people, and she has been very distressed by it. She has told me some of her stories of saying goodbye to people. It just seemed to me an interesting and bizarre thing that was happening. Aside from the economics and anything else, it is the wholesale destruction of faith, and that seemed to me worth brooding over.
Donald Westlake: Well, most of us have a middle name, which we don't normally use but will be in the official records of us. And what Burke Devore was doing was depersonalizing the people he was going after. He would give them their full official name to make them less real, and then when he had somebody targeted, he would make them even less real by referring only to their initials.
Donald Westlake: Yes, they have. A good friend of mine said, "I found myself rooting for him, and I shouldn't!" And I got a letter from a man who was downsized six years ago. He was 18 months without a job, and in his letter he said, "When I read THE AX, I wondered why murder had never occurred to me."
Donald Westlake: [laughs] I've always like the nutty levels of specialization of somebody who gets into his job, and so the bartender who says, "Once I know your drink I know you" struck me as an amusing type of character. Once he wanted to define the people that way, then I had to.
Donald Westlake: [laughs] That's been different at different times. It's no longer a Stinger. In those books that you are referring to, the bartender says he likes beer drinkers because they have a low center of gravity. So I guess that would be me. And anyway, Dortmunder is named after a German beer.
Donald Westlake: Seems to me that way too! But the fact is that part of writing a book is marketing it, and for the publisher and the bookseller to market a book, they have to be able to categorize it. And mystery is a good place to be categorized in. I know I'd hate to be on one of those shelves called Humor.
Donald Westlake: What I invented there was very specific. I think it would be very unlikely that a person with that motivation and attitude would be in exactly that position and opportunity. But it is very possible that other things in that situation could be happening. For instance, we know that domestic violence and suicide, respectively, increase after downsizing. So this is just another side to the violence.
Donald Westlake: I've never actually modeled any character of mine on people I know or see. Very rarely I've used famous people and tried to get that public persona as best I can. But the invented characters are combinations of kinds of people, and parts of me.
Donald Westlake: Well, first, the book stops before that, so you can't quite say that he does. But if he doesn't, he won't stop, so I think it would be better to let him have it at this point.
Donald Westlake: Yes, I do read reviews. I read the positive reviews for the wisdom in them, and the negative reviews to see what idiots people can be! I think all writers like a limited amount of feedback. You are putting your work out there, and it is good to get responses whether you agree with them or not.
Donald Westlake: Actually, I'm reading nonfiction at the moment, a book called OLIVES by a man named Mort Rosenblym. It's a book about the history of olive growing around the world today, and what [olives] have meant to the human race. It is the kind of thing The New Yorker used to do, keep hitting one thing. The last novel I read was GERMINAL by Zola, set in the coal mines of France at the turn of the century, and much of it is about a doomed strike in the late 19th century. It is odd to think how those people felt about work after I just finished writing THE AX.
Donald Westlake: [laughs] Well, the first thing about COMEBACK is that it was rather a surprise to me. I had never given up the idea that I would write another Parker novel, but all previous attempts failed. There were four attempts. That this one succeeded is delightful but confusing, because I was already really busy. But Richard Stark seems to be back, because I have another one I just finished. As for Mel Gibson, that will be from the first Parker novel, called THE HUNTER, which in 1967 was made into a film called "Point Blank," starring Lee Marvin. So far, my relationship with that project is merely to point out [that this] was not a pretty shell they found on the beach It has an author. It will work out -- what my relationship will be with the movie, I don't know. Probably minimal. About the Parker novels in print This may happen. They have been kept more or less in print for some years now in England. The appearance of COMEBACK, and the appearance of Mel Gibson, may encourage their reprint, but I don't know yet.
Donald Westlake: I think the Internet is simply another delivery system, and that what is being delivered is story, whether it is a movie or a novel or a soap opera on TV -- it is always story. A few years ago, it looked as if interactive fiction was going to be the way that story was going to be delivered, but it didn't last. I don't know how the Internet will bring stories in the future -- all we know right now is that it is complicating issues of copyright.
Donald Westlake: Well, it feels wonderful to be well received! And I have known Larry Block for almost 40 years (that certainly seems impossible). And I think we've liked each other and admired each other and learned from each other from the beginning. It has always been an association full of shop talk. And I think it is true among mystery writers that there really isn't much sense of dog-eat-dog competition. I think rightly or wrongly that we each are unique, and no one is competing with us. So we tend to be friends.
Donald Westlake: Ah...Larry Block! I think that the writer I most enjoy reading for the sake of reading him is Elmore Leonard. He is so quirky and different in what he does. I like Peter Straub a lot, and there are at least half a dozen others who I'm not thinking of but whom I read when they have a book out.
Donald Westlake: I was leaving out Ed McBain, which I should not. Okay.
Donald Westlake: I was partway through the book when I realized it kept reminding me of my father. Not because my father killed anybody, but because he had been harmed by the Depression in the '30s; it had shaken his confidence. So all the time I knew him, I knew him as the man who felt defeated. So when I was working on the book, I felt that that was part of what the downsized people are feeling today. So I saw that link. I think the reason I dedicated it to him was to say to him, "It's okay, it could happen to anybody."
Donald Westlake: Thanks. Goodnight.
Posted March 30, 2011
Posted November 2, 2000
This is a great book. Dark in nature, this book has plenty of social commentary but nothing strange or out of the ordinary. I would say that the plot was a little far out but it made for a very good story. To see how Burke viewed the world was extremely interesting and to see how he began to change into what he ultimately became was more than enjoyable. I thought that the greatest triumph of the book is showing the change of someone who once believed in the system but ultimately felt that the system had abandoned them and set out not to get even with the system but to fight their way back in.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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