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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Book review: Donald Westlake’s “The Comedy Is Finished”

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    Donald E. Westlake was one of the most prolific crime authors of all time. Though he may be less well known than contemporary Elmore Leonard, he is recognized as a truly first rate writer of crime fiction, having been awarded the Grand Master Award, the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor. After his death in 2008, the world never expected tp experience a brand new masterwork from him. But now, one last time, a new Westlake tale has been released.

    The plot seems almost innocent in an abbreviated description. In the years following the excesses of the 60s, Koo Davis, America’s favorite comedian, has found himself less well liked for being a vocal hawk on Vietnam. Not usually one to discuss politics, his foray into public commentary proves to be a big mistake when a group of five anti-American revolutionaries kidnap Davis.

    What follows is a game of cat and mouse between the violent kidnappers and American law enforcement, with Davis right in the middle.

    If it sounds a little zany, take the cover at face value. This book is sexy, violent, and sometimes troubling. The provocative cover is actually a little understated compared to the graphic nature of the book. Though it isn’t necessarily in good taste, the luridness of “The Comedy Is Finished” is not mere filler. Flowing through the bloodshed is deep, meaningful narration.

    Every character, from the burned-out but determined leftist activists to the hardnosed FBI agent leading the negotiations, is given a very real identity.

    Originally written in the 1980s, the book deals with a time when the wounds of war were still very fresh. It would have been easy for Westlake to turn the People’s Revolutionary Army members into pinko cardboard cutouts, but despite their extreme and delusional beliefs, the reader can still find some empathy for them. That, in the end, is one of the best and most interesting parts of “The Comedy Is Finished.”

    It’s fascinating to view the kidnappers as Westlake paints them, as combatants in what they perceive as a necessary conflict. The law enforcement personnel trying to track them are the same way. The leftist revolutionaries are used to fighting a war on their own people, and though they must now fight one last battle, the real war has already been won and lost.

    Nobody feels this dichotomy more acutely than Davis. He’s a veteran of USO tours in WWII and Korea, and can’t understand why Vietnam was any different than those ‘just’ conflicts. His outdated politics reflect his age, both physically and ideologically.

    In the hands of the communist menace that his generation has been programmed to fear, Davis is bound to learn a lot about himself and what he is. Whether he lives to change his ways is another story altogether.

    “The Comedy Is Finished” is a rare beast in that it is a truly intelligent social commentary buried in a heart-pounding crime thriller. It reads well, it sits well later on, and whether or not it ends well is worth reading to find out.

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