RARA-AVIS: Westlake's THE AX

Ted White (tedwhite@compusnet.com)
Mon, 11 Jan 1999 13:10:09 -0500 Doug Levin sez, "Speaking of Westlake, what's the take on The Ax?"

Well, immediately reading it I turned to a Dortmunder novel for

Seriously, I lost a mundane job a year ago (last January) in a company
which had in only a few years made a radical turn from being a
socially responsible, employee-friendly company (I worked directly
with the owners the first two years I was there) to an
employee-hostile company run by middle-managers who resented the
employees under them who'd been there longer, and contrived to get rid
of us (most of us are now gone, and now employees are monitored by
video cameras and randomly drug-tested). There was some
bitterness. (I was glad to be out of that place, but angry over the
way it occurred -- fired to make a place for my supervisor's
crony.) So I was somewhat in a mood for THE AX.

THE AX is the story of a man who systematically murders his
competition for a job, told from his (bitter) point of view. I kept
wondering to what extent I should empathize with him. I mean, it's
one thing to empathize with a criminal protagonist, like, say, Parker
in Westlake's "Richard Stark" books, or even Dortmunder (who never
seems to profit significantly from his crimes) in his "comedies." We
"buy" the worldview of the protagonist, who knows he's a criminal and
more or less accepts the rules by which he plays. But in THE AX the
protagonist is a "good," non-criminal person at the start -- a man who
feels forced into a series of murders as the only rational choice for
a man in his position. And lurking in the back of my mind through
reading the book is the awareness that murder is *not* a rational
choice, and that I'm suspending disbelief almost purely on the basis
of Westlake's writing skills alone. Why should I root for his
success in killing people who are surely in no way deserving of this
fate? I mean, he's not a BUTCHER'S BOY, a professional assassin,
knocking off fellow bad guys. And (SPOILER ALERT!) he gets what he's
going after; he wins at the end. But now that he's murdered several
times (and covered up his son's own criminal activity), and adopted an
Us vs. Them mentality about the police, where does this leave him at
the end of the book? Has he really gained? Can he turn himself back
into the Good Citizen he'd been previously? Why do I doubt the
"happiness" of the ending?

THE AX left me with an unclean feeling when I finished it. How
about you?

--Ted White

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