Two posthumous gifts from a master entertainer.
Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By JON L. BREEN
Memory tells the story of Paul Cole, an actor with a touring company who receives a concussion in a fight with a jealous husband and spends the entire book trying to deal with the resultant memory loss. It’s not the convenient amnesia common in suspense fiction: Cole remembers his name and never completely forgets all aspects of his past life—he knows he lives in New York, for example—but his short-term memory is shot, and he must resort to writing notes to remind himself of everyday things. While he eventually gets back to New York, his efforts to reestablish himself with his friends and profession are painful. For an actor, what could be worse than not being able to remember lines? This is a very unhappy book, and as close to humorless as Westlake could possibly get. But it is also relentlessly involving and readable.
Even Westlake’s close friend Block doubted any other complete manuscripts would turn up. But another friend and fellow novelist, Max Allan Collins, came forward to challenge the publisher’s label of Memory as Westlake’s “final unpublished novel.” The Comedy Is Finished was written in the late 1970s, and in the early ’80s Westlake sent a copy to Collins. At some point he decided not to publish, noting that the central situation, the abduction of a comedian, might seem too similar to Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy.
As an explanation, however, such a claim is hard to buy. In Scorsese’s film, a late-night talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis, is imprisoned by a show-biz wannabe, played by Robert DeNiro. The motivation is dissimilar from that of Westlake’s characters, and the situation is played more for humor. Maybe Westlake thought the book wasn’t up to his standard of quality; in any case, Collins’s copy seems to be the only surviving manuscript.
While Memory has been published as a paperback original, The Comedy Is Finished is a hardcover—but that vintage-paperback look is unchanged. The scene depicted on the jacket—a naked woman with a gun and a man tied to a chair—does occur in the novel, and it echoes the title’s hint that this is not among Westlake’s humorous novels. The story opens with television comedian Koo Davis warming up his studio audience. It’s immediately obvious from his fast-talking style and his backstory—broke into show-biz prominence in the late 1930s, entertained the troops in various wars, lost some of his audience through support of the Vietnam war—that he is patterned after Bob Hope.
At the end of the first chapter, Koo is kidnapped, and a disgraced, low-level FBI agent and minor Watergate figure, Mike Wiskiel, gets the case. The kidnappers are Weatherman-type radicals demanding the release from prison of 10 “political prisoners.” Koo and his five varied captors, throwbacks to the vigilante terrorism of the late 1960s and early ’70s, are fully drawn characters. The suspense and surprise are masterfully engineered. One unexpected turn is a flashback to the Korean War and a brainwashed G I Koo met while on tour, and among the features is one of the oddest father/son relationships in fictional annals.
Ultimately, this is not the best Westlake novel. Some of the plot turns and character reversals seem too contrived and easy; but while the denouement is not completely credible, the maintenance of suspense and reader involvement is undeniable. Above all, it illustrates Westlake’s ability to take either a serious or comic approach to the same situation. In both the farcical Dortmunder novels and the tough Parker series, elaborate crimes are planned and carried out by professional criminals before something goes wrong. But the treatment of events is entirely different in each series. The Comedy Is Finished could have been played for laughs instead of drama, with the reversals that frustrate the kidnappers promising comic fodder. Either way, the story would be compelling reading.
Westlake’s earlier treatment of 1960s militants took a lighter approach. Up Your Banners (1969), a comic novel with an underlying seriousness (as opposed to a very serious novel festooned with wisecracks), is a delightful story about an incendiary issue: the hiring at a predominantly black New York high school of a white teacher who happens to be the principal’s son. Most of the characters are lika-ble, human, and sometimes absurd; such terms as “Negro,” “colored,” and “black” all appear in a time of changing racial nomenclature. The subtly racist board of education meeting is deftly handled, and the ending is not all that predictable.