The men who killed themselves in shame during the Great Depression because they couldn't provide for their families didn't feel any less responsible because of the social and economic forces arrayed against them. And it appears, in the horror stories that have been in the news since last fall, neither did the men who have killed their families as well as themselves during our Great Recession.
Burke Devore, the out-of-work protagonist of Donald E. Westlake's 1997 novel The Ax (Warner Books), fully understands what he's up against. "The layoffs are too extensive," he says, "and are in every industry across the board, and the number of companies firing is much larger than the number of companies hiring. More and more of us are out here now, another thousand or so every day, and we're chasing fewer and fewer jobs." In Burke's hands, knowledge becomes power.
The downsizing of the late '90s seems far less desperate than our present straits. Now, twelve years after The Ax initially appeared, we can see that time as a midpoint between the economic Darwinism unleashed by Ronald Reagan--"This world we live in began fifteen years ago, when the air traffic controllers were all given the chop, and suicide ran briskly through that group, probably because they felt more alone than we do now"--and the catastrophic endpoint those policies reached under George W. Bush.
Burke isn't an innovator, or a world-beater. He's past 50, with a very specialized area of knowledge (he worked as a product manager for a Connecticut paper mill). His severance package and savings are running out, and a cold distance is seeping into his marriage. A new job has to come fast or it's not going to come at all. Economizing by stopping the cable, not renting movies, canceling the magazine subscriptions and withdrawing from exercise class will not be enough to forestall the long, certain slide into lower-middle-class poverty. And so, as the business coaches advise, Burke becomes proactive.
An article in a trade journal alerts him to a successful company with a job that would be perfect for him if it weren't already filled. Burke places an ad in that same journal, designed to attract men like himself, men of the same age and skills and experience, men who would be his competitors if his dream job became free. Winnowing down his list to six competitors, Burke proceeds to murder them, one by one, and then to kill off the man holding the job he sees as his way back to work.
Westlake, who died on his way out to dinner this past New Year's Eve, wrote comic crime novels as well as, in the Parker series under the pseudonym Richard Stark, the hardest and meanest of noirs. The Ax is neither. Westlake provides neither the comforting distance of satire nor a comforting fantasy of revenge. Burke is not a madman. He isn't even sure he can kill at first. And after he does, it doesn't get easier.
Burke follows one of his intended victims into a diner only to find the man working as a waiter. Worse, the fellow recognizes in Burke a middle-aged guy out of a job, like himself, and engages him in a conversation meant to lift Burke's spirits. When Burke kills him later that night, it's by running him over, and he has to do it three times to finish the job. "I'm weeping when I get back to the motel," says Burke, "my eyes are full of tears, everything swims. I push the door open, and the room that was going to be warm and homey is underwater, afloat, cold and wet because of my tears."
This is the special hell of The Ax. We have entered an ordinary, middle-class world where empathy is as useless as on the battlefield. In the opening lines of the book Burke mentions that he would have liked to ask his father, a World War II veteran, what it was like to kill someone. It's a telling comparison. Just having the ordinary, unglamorous, comfortable middle-class life that was supposed to be the reward for playing by the rules--that's the war for Burke's generation. "In those last five months," Burke says of the weeks he spent with the co-workers who, like him, knew they were being fired, "the hundreds of us there, used to be best friends, working together, counting on one another, not even thinking about it, we always knew we could rely on each other right on down the line. But it was the end of the line, and we were enemies now, because we were competitors now, and we all knew it."
The unspoken subject of The Ax is that Burke's murderous project is a smaller-scale version of the corporate behavior around him. Companies that are not eradicating each other in mergers and acquisitions are eradicating the people who stand in the way of their making higher profits, even if they are the people who allowed them to make any profit in the first place.
"You know," says one character, "there's been societies, like primitive peoples in Asia and like that, they expose newborn babies on hillsides to kill them, so they won't have to feed them and take care of them. And there's been societies, like the early Eskimos, that put their real old folk out on icebergs to float away and die, because they couldn't take care of them any more. But this is the first society ever that takes its most productive people, at their prime, at the peak of their powers, and throws them away."
Burke's curse, and the key to his survival, is that he sees this clearly. When his son is arrested for shoplifting, Burke returns home from the police station, searches his son's room for evidence of past thefts and, when he finds it, goes out in the middle of the night to dispose of it. He's a step ahead of the cops who turn up the next day with a search warrant. "When I was the person I was before I got the chop," Burke says, "I would have trusted the law, or society, or somebody, to do right by Billy. And the result would have been, they'd have gotten him for four burglaries instead of one, and he'd be looking at jail time.... I did the right thing with Billy, and the reason I did the right thing, and could even think about the problem the right way, is because I don't trust them anymore. None of them. Now I know it; nobody will take care of me and mine but me."
Had Westlake written a satirical novel, those lines would have been heavy with irony. But what makes The Ax so unnerving and so believable is the absence of irony in Burke's voice. Burke isn't embracing the new ruthlessness he sees around him. Knowing what it takes to hold on to his life doesn't make him happier because, on some level, it means accepting that everything he ever believed doesn't apply anymore. As clearly as any writer or filmmaker has, Donald E. Westlake understood how the radical right takeover of America that began with Reagan (and may have ended last November) meant the destruction of the security most Americans expected would see them to the end of their lives. The Ax dramatizes Margaret Thatcher's notorious remark, "There is no such thing as society." It feels like a classic American novel waiting to be discovered. Though given the fear coming off the news every day, who could be blamed for not wanting to face up to it?