The Red Pen of Doom embraces THE AX by Donald Westlake

the ax by donald westlake, the first page of novels

Listen: it’s hard to slog through the first page of a novel by Snooki, a literary zero.

And beating up the first page by a literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, feels rebellious, as if I’m giving sending a chunk of English teachers and profs into therapy. Even so, it doesn’t feel good. Giants of literature need to remain giant and omnipotent in our minds, not bogged down with meandering prose that doesn’t go anywhere for a full page.

So as a palate cleanser, this week we’re dissecting page one of a brilliant, relatively obscure novel by Donald Westlake, a master of the craft.

THE AX by Donald Westlake

I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44—’45, having shot and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.

Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that., discuss it with him, Not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.

NOTES FROM THE RED PEN OF DOOM

This is an intense thriller, with an everyman anti-hero who responds to getting laid off in an interesting way: taking out a fake job ad, then collecting those resumes and killing off the competition for his specialized trade (managing paper mills, if I remember right). It’s a short, intense, amazing book by a master of his craft.

So, I didn’t get itchy pencil on this page one, though there are some easy edits. The run-on sentences are clearly on purpose, a little conversational tic of the narrator. My personal feeling is they get just a bit annoying early on here. Pretty easy to kill a few words and make it more readable.

What’s truly great is how Westlake strikes at the heart of his anti-hero, and the novel, not just on the first page but in the very first line.

You rarely see that. Not in movies, not in books.

Westlake takes a carpenter’s hammer and smacks you in the nose with this first line and I could not love it more.

The whole novel is like that.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD, this is a similar story with a different ending. It’s not a tragedy, with a hero falling, sinning and dying due to hubris. This is a story of a suburban schlub who suffers, sacrifices and does terrible things to provide for his family…and wins in the end. He gets the job. The house doesn’t go into foreclosure, his family isn’t on the street. He wins, not that Westlake is saying what his character did is right and good.

BOTTOM LINE

This is a great first page that doesn’t meander around, and a terrific way to put the reader into the essential question of the story, a neat twist on “What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for?”

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