Monday, March 05, 2012

Back in 1977, or, The Comedy Is Finished

In his book The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, which I wrote about last week, Josh Wilker quotes the following passage from Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979:
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.
At this remove in time, the speech seems unfairly maligned: not only did Carter, famously, not actually use the word "malaise," his diagnosis of the country's ills seems dead-on: directionlessness, distrust, uncertainty, a "growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and . . . the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation." A "crisis of confidence."

But America, as usual, didn't really want to hear the truth--and they certainly didn't want to hear it from Carter, whom they'd written off as ineffectual early in his presidency. Instead, they turned to Reagan, with his vision of a world stripped of shades of gray, where America's confidence and goodness were taken for granted, and where her best years unquestionably lay ahead of her. Knowing my politics and my preference for nuance, I can't imagine the pitch would have worked on me, but I can't wholly blame America in general for falling for it. When you're down, and worried about what's next, you don't want to be told that you're probably right to feel that way; you want someone to assure you that it's going to be okay.

All of which is by way of a long preamble to talking about Donald E. Westlake's The Comedy Is Finished. Westlake wrote it in the late 1970s, but when Martin Scorsese released his film The King of Comedy, which, like the novel, centered on the kidnapping of a comedian, Westlake shelved the book, and it remained unpublished until Hard Case Crime brought it out this month.

The delay was good for the book: what at the time would have been a relatively straightforward crime novel has now become a time capsule, capturing a moment of borderline national despair that would be aggressively scrubbed from our memories by the go-go '80s--the exact moment, the late summer of 1977, that Josh Wilker took up in his Bad News Bears book. To read them back to back is to feel, briefly, like the 1970s are with you again, Wilker conjuring them up from the child's-eye-view that I remember, and Westlake showing the sour sea of curdled hopes whose noxious swells we sensed our parents were trying to ride out.

Westlake's plot is simple: Bob Hope gets kidnapped by a group like the Symbionese Liberation Army. Oh, his name's Koo Dsvis instead of Bob Hope, and his kidnappers don't really have a name, but Westlake doesn't try too hard to hide his characters' real-life counterparts. (Particularly impressive is Westlake's spot-on imitation of Hope in the jokes he writes for Davis.) Davis has been singled out because of his vocal support for the establishment and its aims, especially his support for the Vietnam War, and the kidnappers demand the release of ten "political prisoners"--fellow movement members who are in prison for offenses ranging from murder to arson--before they'll turn him loose.

The prolonged negotiations let Westlake show us every side of the confrontation: Davis's confusion and sense that he's suffering unfairly; one kidnapper's certainty that if he can just explain dialectical materialism clearly enough, Davis will join them; an alcoholic FBI agent's obsessive desire to regain his footing after getting burned in Watergate; and more. And what they all have in common, despite wildly varying points of view, is doubt. Nearly every character in The Comedy Is Finished is fissured by doubt. The leader of the kidnappers is at a loss to understand why the radical leftist movement has petered out, consumed by the impatience typical of failed millenarian movements. A borderline psychotic fellow kidnapper wonders why she's even keeping going after she's seen friends die and lovers imprisoned. And Koo Davis struggles to figure out why the nation has turned on his oh-so-American schtick--and maybe even against America itself.

Westlake in his novels--such as his Mitch Tobin book Murder among Children--tends to come across as more sympathetic to the youth of the 1960s than one might expect of someone just old enough to already have been a working writer as the movement exploded. But perhaps it shouldn't be surprising: in Westlake, power and authority are to be questioned--where not deliberately malign, they're at a minimum rarely working for anything much beyond their own perpetuation. With The Comedy Is Finished, he shows us what happens when that questioning becomes reflex and, calling to mind the painful later parts of Olivier Assayas's Carlos, violence moves from last resort to first. It's a hell of a book, wholly convincing and a reminder of just how smart and perceptive Westlake was: he saw what was happening around him and put it down clearly and carefully enough that reading it collapses time and takes us right back to that moment when America stood at a crossroads, failing flashlight in hand, and chose between painful, possibly pathological introspection, and blithe confidence. We chose the confidence--but thirty-five years later it's obvious that no matter how loudly it may have gotten us clapping, it was never going to be able to erase the gnawing doubt.

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