"The Ax" by Donald E. Westlake
Published in hardcover 1997 by the Mysterious Press and paperback 1998 by Warner Vision.
Genres: suspense / crime
My rating: 6 out of 6 chambers loaded.

A lot of novels have been written around the premise of an ordinary man becoming a murderer for seemingly mundane reasons, but I can't remember another one that struck me as deeply as Donald E. Westlake's 1997 book "The Ax". The jacket copy tells me this book was a New York Times Business Bestseller, and I can see why. This is not just a thriller about a murderer in the making, it's an exploration of America's middle class psyche, an expose of the business practices that are driving more Americans to desperation every year, and a novel about love and marriage beyond the honeymoon years. It will speak in quiet, forceful, truthful tones to anyone who has ever felt the helplessness of being laid off, or seen an inevitable divorce approaching at the end of a long road when you've done nothing but the things you always thought you were supposed to. This is a book about society driving you to do crazy things in a state of utter clarity, knowing that they are wrong and knowing that there is literally nothing else you can do.

This is a damn good book.

Not everybody will enjoy this book as much as me, and although it was a New York Times Notable Book and a starred review in Booklist I suspect a lot of litgeeks missed out on this pleasure, for the same reason it took literary critics over two decades to really pay attention to Stephen King: it's a genre book, not a "literary" one, and the genre is crime. Westlake's satire of the business world, and his magnificent characterizations, are there to support a crime story, not the other way around. And it has several brutal murders in it, committed by our ostensible protagonist, one Burke Devore. Burke is by his own admission not a very likeable man, but is nonetheless a clear reflection of the reader, even if the reader is not a middle-aged, middle-class, white male professional. We understand why he is getting his hands bloody, and it all seems so reasonable.

Of course, it isn't really. There are, even in the later stages of Burke's murder campaign, several other options that he could take. No one in the milieu Westlake is describing is ever really forced to commit murder again and again. But Westlake is so adept at portraying his antihero's personal reality that we completely understand him, and I think very few readers will condemn Burke at the end of the book.

Burke's problem is real, you see. This isn't just another revenge fantasy or an exploration of the mind of a psychopath. Burke has a real problem that we can all identify with, one that more of us every day are finding part of our own realities:

Burke needs a job. He's qualified and competent, has no strikes on his record, and has a family to support. But the market is against him. Because not only are we outsourcing everything we can possibly outsource and automating every task in order to save some schmoe's minimum wage, but for the few good jobs that are still available, there's always somebody out there who's a little more qualified, lives a little nearer the job site, or is just plain more likeable. Someone who looks better on paper, and might know how to interview better than you.

There always is. I've been there, and it's true. But Burke is a little older and hungrier than I ever was, a little colder in the heart maybe, and more willing than most of us to consider the unthinkable. And Burke has an untraceable gun....

What else can I say to make you read "The Ax"? Shall I direct you to chapter 26, where Burke's wife Marjorie tells us, in a single heartbreaking paragraph six pages long, the other side of the story Burke has been narrating for the last 212 pages? This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Also worth noting, "the Ax" contains better tips (and examples) on how to write a resume than most of the resume books in the Business section.

But if you're in a resume-writing situation, I'd be very, very careful when responding to those Help Wanted ads. You never know who else might have read Burke Devore's wicked, immaculately plotted job-hunting manual.

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