Hard Case Crime review: The Comedy is Finished by Donald E. Westlake (#105)

But Seriously, Folks.

The year is 1977, and America is finally getting over the nightmares of Watergate and Vietnam and the national hangover that was the 1960s. But not everyone is ready to let it go. Not aging comedian Koo Davis, friend to generals and presidents and veteran of countless USO tours to buck up American troops in the field. And not the five remaining members of the self-proclaimed People’s Revolutionary Army, who’ve decided that kidnapping Koo Davis would be the perfect way to bring their cause back to life…

If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, you know the story behind The Comedy is Finished. Briefly, Donald Westlake didn’t publish it because the Martin Scorcese film The King of Comedy (which I have not seen) came out with some plot similarities. Max Allan Collins had a copy of the manuscript, and eventually it got to Hard Case Crime impresario Charles Ardai, who published it as a stunning hardcover.

The story of The Comedy is Finished, the manuscript, is fascinating. Fortunately, the story in The Comedy is Finished, the novel, is just as fascinating.

Koo Davis, based about as obviously on Bob Hope as he could be without naming him “Hob Bope,” is an asshole and a patriot. He couldn’t serve in the military for medical reasons, so he served by entertaining our troops wherever they were, something that wasn’t controversial until Vietnam. The war over, he’s beginning the healing process along with most of the rest of the United States.

The members of the People’s Revolutionary Army have not joined in that healing, and love the symbolism behind kidnapping Koo Davis. He is the Establishment, the court jester of the Military Industrial Complex or whatever term the radicals are using this year.

The Comedy is Finished is absolutely vicious in highlighting that with the members of this so-called Army, as often with radicals, it isn’t the politics at all. It’s a deeper pathology expressed through politics. Every one of the kidnappers is heavily damaged in his own way. Liz is Bernadine Dohrn as acid casualty. Leader of the “movement” Peter is mainly concerned with power. Joyce is a den mother with a lousy family that she’s determined to keep together no matter what. Mark has daddy issues. Only Larry seems 100% in it for the politics, spouting off his theories to anyone who will listen and anyone who won’t. He’s the one who might be pardoned by a future liberal president nostalgic for the ’60s and land a teaching job at some small liberal arts college if he makes it out of this alive, but his politics are a ridiculous utopian pipe dream that would require humans to stop being human to actually work.

With all of them, it’s extended adolescence at its worst, and it’s pathetic while also being frightening. Throw into the mix a rich touring musician who seems to be dabbling in (and funding) radicalism because he finds it so damned amusing, and you’ve got a canister of nitroglycerine on the back of a rickety old truck that’s hurtling down a rocky road at a ridiculous speed.

But, just like he makes a jerk like Koo Davis human, Westlake also makes these lost souls human, as well as the other characters who play roles in the Koo Davis Primetime Special. Each has a fleshed-out personality. Each is even sometimes sympathetic.

The Comedy is Finished is about as square as it gets in its subtle message, as it advocates for at least the broad outlines of The System that the radicals want to smash. Bleeding-heart liberals and rock-ribbed conservatives can unite under the cause of saving a man who may be a jerk, but who makes people laugh and makes people like him, and who, despite his shortcomings, is a human being who served his country the only way he knew how. Bleeding-heart liberals and rock-ribbed conservatives may not agree on much, but they understand that political violence in a country like ours is a bridge too far, and they reject it, and fight against it.

Suspenseful, believable, and all too human, The Comedy is Finished might not be the masterpiece that the previous lost Westlake novel, Memory, was, but it is a triumph, and a big one.

Thank God Max Allan Collins saved that manuscript.

Note: I recently participated in a podcast on The Comedy is Finished with Jesse Willis of SFFaudio and DEW’s son Paul Westlake. Spoilers, so beware. The podcast can be found here.

Buy The Comedy Is Finished