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.”