After an author dies, there’s often an attempt to “clean out the file cabinet” and publish everything that author ever wrote. Such appears to be the case with the work of Donald Westlake, as the decade since his death has some unpublished works appear for the first time.
In my experience as a reader, unpublished, “long-lost” works are risky reads – sometimes items aren’t published for a reason. But I couldn’t resist checking out Donald Westlake’s The Comedy is Finished when I saw a copy in the Orange Beach library the other day.
Plot & Characters
The Comedy is Finished concerns Koo Davis, a pill-addled 63-year-old comedian whose career is on the downswing. But Davis still attracts the attention of the five leftover radicals from the 1960s who decide to kidnap him due to his frequent participation in USO-sponsored tours that entertain American troops. Westlake draws on the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patricia Hearst for much of his plot.
So far, this is an excellent novel. I give it 8.5 out of 10. The Comedy is Finished has a good plot that contains enough twists to keep the reader guessing. And the characters are well drawn. Westlake gives each of the five kidnappers a distinct personality and this adds to the interest in the story. Here is Davis describing his abductors –
There’s the leader, probably the one referred to as Peter; he likes to stay behind the scenes, put in an occasional dramatic or sardonic appearance, and then fade away again. The old eminence grise routine. Along with him there’s Vampira, the naked blonde chick with the scars; Koo doesn’t know her name, and would be perfectly happy never to see her again, with or without clothing. Another nut is Larry, the lecturer in Advanced Insanity; there’s a weird sort of sympathy inside Larry, but it’s probably useless to Koo, since Larry clearly is a True Believer, one of those intellectual clowns who can’t see the goods for the theories. A completely unsympathetic type is Mark, the tough guy with the chip on his shoulder; Koo knows that fellow is just waiting for an excuse to do something really drastic. Which leaves this girl here, Joyce, who looks tragic and unhealthy and who cries at Koo’s jokes. (P. 118).
To be sure, not all of the elements work. Koo’s manager is Lynsey Rayne. Forty years after Westlake wrote The Comedy is Finished, Lynsey strikes the reader as a stereotype – a male novelist’s attempt to create a powerful, sympathetic woman character. To me, Lynsey seems less real than do the other flawed characters. Another gripe is that – inevitably – some of the book’s politics are dated.
The Road Ahead
I’ve finished only about half of this one and I don’t know if Westlake can pull all of the threads together and bring it to a satisfying close. It’s going to be fun to find out.