Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book: The Comedy Is Finished, by Donald E. Westlake (2012)

That didn’t take long. Halfway into January and we already have the first great book of 2012. It just happened to have been moldering in a basement for nigh on thirty years. These things happen.

The peerless Donald E. Westlake began writing The Comedy Is Finished in the late 1970s. Publishers encouraged him to make it funnier, but then the book wasn’t meant to be a laugh riot. Westlake sent the manuscript to Max Allan Collins for input, but before any changes were made the film The King of Comedy was released. Superficial plot similarities convinced Westlake to table the book. Years later, when Hard Case Crime published Westlake’s brilliant Memory as his “final novel,” Collins got in touch and said it ain’t necessarily so. (Collins, a fellow Hard Case author, tells the story here.)

Both Comedy and Comedy – see what I did there? – revolve around the kidnapping of a TV legend. But while Scorsese’s film is a pungent, prescient look at the blurring of fame and notoriety, Westlake’s novel is a political beast, grounded in the turmoil of its time. Westlake gives us a big cast of characters, every one of them beautifully detailed. The members of the Symbionese Liberation Army-style group, falling apart collectively and individually. An FBI agent tarred by Watergate seeking a shot at redeeming his career. A talent agent who’s too close to her star client.

But Westlake’s greatest triumph comes in the present tense chapters told from the perspective of America’s comic, Koo Davis. Koo is a barely-veiled Bob “Anything for a Laugh” Hope. They share the same history – the silly ghost comedies, the safe gags (“You always knew what year it was from Koo’s material, but never what the issues were”) the tireless run of USO tours that become a liability in the wake of Vietnam. Westlake absolutely nails Hope’s rhythms and his boastful coward persona. More impressively, he plumbs the depths of the soul of a man who feels genuine affection for the many women he loves and leaves, who cracks jokes compulsively to keep the darkness at bay.

Comedy may not be a comedy as such, but the Davis chapters are frequently hilarious. Westlake’s many skills are on display throughout; a late sex scene is charged and disturbingly intimate, and expertly timed twists ratchet up the tension. In that respect the book is definitive Westlake, combining both lightness and shadow. The two “lost” Westlake novels published by Hard Case represent some of the finest work of the author’s career. And that is truly saying something.

Garry Shandling presented Scorsese’s The King of Comedy at a film festival in Los Angeles last week. Here’s a report.