Westlake’s Labor Movement

It’s been difficult for me to squeeze in non-review reading lately, but a week ago I was able to start repairing a sizable blind spot by picking up The Jugger, a 1965 Parker novel by Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark. (The University of Chicago Press recently began publishing handsome reissues of the Parker novels, with introductions from John Banville, Luc Sante, and other smart folk.) Apparently I picked a lousy place to start with Westlake—the author, who died last New Year’s Eve, considered it one of his worst novels—but I don’t feel the worse for reading it. The plot is pretty ramshackle, yes, but the backstories of the corrupt police chief and aging safecracker are nicely set up, and there’s a beautifully grim sadism in the way Westlake draws out the cop’s abuses of the old man—good noirish fun.

Next time around, I’ll likely go with Westlake’s 1997 novel The Ax, which Charles Taylor enthusiastically recommends in the Nation. The story follows an out-of-work paper-mill laborer who decides to kill any potential competition for a job he’s perfect for. Taylor’s reading of the novel is political, arguing that Westlake was capturing the abuses of Reaganomics on working-class America:

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….

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.

The anti-Reaganomics argument seems sensible enough, even if the novel came out in the Clinton era. But part of me wonders if Westlake’s motivation in writing The Ax was more self-serving—perhaps he was simply sublimating concerns about losing his lofty perch in the crime-fiction pantheon?

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