5 out of 5
In high school, I took a European history class, and I discovered that I actually cared about the material. This is notable because historically – womp – I couldn’t care less for the subject on the whole, and there’s nothing particular to that focus that makes that care increase. And it’s not I’ve been interested about it since, either: clarifying that I was interested in the information as it was presented to me, by a very skilled teacher. While I was in his class, I cared, and I have tended to remember (at least moreso than from other history classes) topics and concepts that he covered.
That’s the power of a good teacher, lest we doubt it.
Donald Westlake’s The Comedy Is Finished is not a historical book by any means, but it’s setting is a time I have no connection to – the late 70s, before my Earth-shaking birthdom – and it is informed by historical events, with its characters motivated – in various ways – by Vietnam. Post-war tales are nothing new in fiction, of course, and it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of those, but it’s nothing to do with the history in those cases, and all about how the story is told. Westlake is undeniably a good storyteller; that’s true here as well. But he passes by that qualification with further skills that’ve made him into a deserved master: while I’m reading The Comedy is Finished, I care about Vietnam, and what its characters feel about it. That kept impressing me in the book, in which some are attempting to remain single-mindedly nationalistic, some are way deep in anti-war rhetoric, some are more concerned about the social politics of it, and some are just… there, not caring one way or another, and Westlake doesn’t paint their opinions or expressions with a bias pen – they’re all just people. Relatable on that level, even if / while they’re doing or saying ugly or incomprehensible things.
There’s even more to how this skill of the writer’s flourishes, by choosing to center the novel on comedian Koo Davis, who’s been kidnapped by the People’s Revolutionary Army, for reasons that become clear as the chapters tick along, and as Davis’ plight as their victim worsens. Because Davis is something of a lout, and pretty privileged and naive to boot. We’re introduced to him rattling off his list of casual USO Tour hook-ups, leading up to his complaining about the current state of post-Vietnam America, in which it’s not cool anymore to make the kind of softballed jokes that’d helped to raise his status as a performer, back in the day. (It’s interesting that this was written sometime in the early 80s, when some of the inter-seeded commentary in the book would have its proxies in 2020 America as well.) Koo’s still married, but he never sees his kids or wife; his star wanes and nothing seems right or square with the world anymore, as a result.
The lout is not an unusual noir protagonist, of course, but Westlake pulls that above-mentioned trick of somehow making him worth spending time with, without any distractions of noir-hero badassness – i.e. he’s not going to solve some mystery, or turn out to be a capable P.I. He’s just kind of a boor, of a very particular celebrity mold we can recognize. But neither is the narrative sympathetic to him, exactly. It’s the curse of his charm, dropping witty asides as he tells his tales; we can see how he had managed to be a successful entertainer.
Centering on Davis is especially tricky due to that, and then because he spends the majority of the book as a kidnapee! He’s tied up in trunks or locked in rooms most of the time, requiring Westlake to fill us in on everything else mostly through what he hears or sees when his kidnappers deign to wake him to record ransom messages or whatnot. We do get POV changes to the others involved – the FBI agent; Koo’s PR manager; the various members of the kidnappers – and these characters approached with Westlake’s same deft hand, and some of them would have made for easier focuses of the book, but we stick for Davis.
There are inevitably reasons as for why this is, but it still fascinated me throughout the book – just how well this thing all works, and how difficult I felt like it would’ve been to piece it together to make it work, not to mention what I’ve elsewise praised above.
Hard Case Crime and Max Allan Collins published this posthumously, with Collins unearthing the text Westlake had given to him after it was written, worried – in part – that it might get confused with Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy film from the time. 30-something years later, here it is, fresh and cutting and immersive as it might’ve been then, and wrapping this reader up into its post-war narrative in a way over similarly set books or movies generally fail to do. Meanwhile, you can also read it as a straight thriller, with the ticking clock of the demands made for Koo’s release being managed by the cops, as internal struggles cause things to ramp up on the kidnapper’s side as well; and on that level the book absolutely succeeds, and without ever feeling like it’s cheating with forced ramp-ups – in classic noir style, things just go wrong, by accident or due to direct action, and it’s one of the best grit-your-teeth-anxiously-as-you-turn-the-pages reading experiences I’ve had in that regard in a while, perhaps until my next Westlake novel, anyway.