Under the Radar

Donald E. Westlake's Final Novel

Hardcore crime novel fans need no introduction to Donald E. Westlake, but here's some background for the rest of you: Westlake wrote over 100 books (many under his Richard Stark pen name), his most popular featuring the hard-boiled criminal Parker. Lee Marvin's essential guy movie Point Blank was based on a Westlake novel and Mel Gibson later remade it as the still-pretty-good movie Payback. Westlake himself got nominated for an Academy Award for writing the screenplay to The Grifters, a movie adapted from a Jim Thompson novel.

Westlake died at the end of 2008 and Hard Case Crime brought out what they thought was Westlake's last book in 2010, a novel called Memory. Turns out fellow Hard Case author Max Allan Collins was friends with Westlake, who once wrote a novel that he decided not to publish because he thought it was too similar to Martin Scorsese's movie The King of Comedy. Westlake gave a copy to Collins, who eventually tipped Hard Case to the unpublished manuscript after Memory came out.

That novel is The Comedy is Finished and it tells the story of an aging politically conservative comedian kidnapped by a domestic terrorist group that threatens to kill him unless the government frees some of their imprisoned comrades. The book takes its title from the closing line of the tragic opera Pagliacci, and though the novel is about a comedian it is not itself a comedy. Rather, it is a high-tension suspense story focusing on the FBI’s efforts to capture the terrorists, the victim’s struggle to stay alive, and the kidnappers’ conflicts as their plans begin to go awry.

We got an exclusive excerpt from The Comedy is Finished below, a scene that introduces us to comedian Koo Davis and includes his reflections on his USO tours how the Vietnam War changed comedy.

 

"Welcome to television, folks. If you’re very very good, we’ll renew ya for next week."

Koo Davis is onstage, hand mike negligently held just below his round pink chin. He looks like that portrait of him done by Norman Rockwell over twenty years ago; everybody has that same warm pink latex face in Norman Rockwell portraits, but Koo Davis has it in real life. He’s the ultimate justification for the Norman Rockwell palette: "See? It is realistic!"

"This thing here," Koo Davis is telling his studio audience, "is called a camera, and that thing there is called a cameraman. If he’s a union cameraman he’s called ‘sir’."

The place is a television studio, with a wide shallow bleacher along one wall, on which sits a studio audience of two hundred fifty people. There isn’t any actual stage, simply the black-composition-floored work area, made into cubicles by muslin-walled sets, with three cameras in position: left, right, center. The center camera operates in a central break in the bleachers, so it isn’t in anybody’s view. The floor is here and there covered with neutral gray carpet, and everywhere strewn with cables, like strings of black and silver spaghetti. Three television sets hang from the ceiling, facing the audience; they are dark now, but during the taping they’ll show the progress to the audience as it’s being put together. Sitting on the rows of folding chairs on the bleachers are the first two hundred fifty people from the line that formed earlier this afternoon outside the studio. They all came in for free, and they’re looking forward to a good time.

"Now," Koo tells them, "we’re gonna be together the next hour or so, while we put this show on tape, and if you’re a student of television and you wanna just sit there and watch the camera angles, that’s okay. And if you wanna laugh so hard you get a stitch in your side and fall down on the floor and roll around helpless with laughter, that’s okay, too. And we’ll be watching you all with monitors, and after the show we’ll tell you which of you can go home."

Koo Davis does his own warm-ups. There are lesser comics who wait in their dressing rooms, talking with their agents and their accountants, while warm-up specialists (jolly-faced fiftyish failures with memorized repertoires) pep up the audience with semi-dirty jokes, get the audience already chuckling away, comfortable in its seats and ready to roar. But that isn’t Koo Davis’ style; his style is to find them where they are, grab them by the lapel, hit ’em with some yocks, hit ’em with some more yocks, and between times grin at ’em and walk around. He does confidence, that’s what Koo Davis does, because an audience digs confidence.

"We’re gonna have a couple special guests here on the show," Koo Davis tells the people. "They’re actors, but you ought be nice to them anyway. I wanna tell ya, I’m always nice to actors. I learned my lesson. Last time I fired an actor, he got a job as Governor." Little pause, grin at them while they laugh. "He wasn’t a very good actor, either."

This is a new line of territory for Koo, a new kind of politics in the jokes, and he’s easing into it very cautiously, like into a tub of too-hot water. Behind the confident grin, the faintly swaggering walk, he’s watching how that Governor gag goes down, he’s waiting to see if they’ll accept it. That is, if they’ll accept it from Koo Davis. He’s got some fence-mending to do, and he’s not exactly sure how to go about it.

The trouble began with the goddamn Vietnam thing. That goddamn war cut the country in half, it put the white male middle class over on this side and every damn body else over on that side, and when it finally ended, for some damn reason Koo couldn’t let go. Others could, Duke Wayne and Shirley MacLaine right away kidding each other at the Academy Awards, but for Koo it was as though to admit the last step had been wrong meant admitting everything before it had also been wrong, and that he just couldn’t do.

The bitch of it is, Koo always stayed out of politics. He started on radio back in ’39, and it was the normal road then to follow the Will Rogers recipe; a couple jokes about Congress not doing anything, some jokes about Roosevelt’s alphabet soup, every comic in the business was doing it. But not Koo. He had an instinct, it said times change, it said people don’t really want to laugh at their leaders, it said leave the messages to Western Union. So Koo told jokes about the railroads, about the army, about automobiles and radio and California weather. And when World War Two came along he told jokes about nylons and chocolates and V-girls and let the other comics tell their jokes about the Nips. (Nobody told jokes about the Nazis; they weren’t funny enough.)

You always knew what year it was from Koo’s material, but never what the issues were. Housing shortage. Vets in college. Fins on cars. Men in space. Let Mort Sahl come onstage with a newspaper, Koo Davis walked on with a golf club. But then came the goddamn Vietnam thing, and the country was divided as it had never been before, and Koo just couldn’t help himself. Like everybody else, he had to come down on one side or the other:

"I didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, and it turned out to be a sheepdog."

"Of course, Canada’s a fine place for people with cold feet."

Nobody needs a majority more than a comic. You’re standing there in front of all those faces and you say your line, and you don’t want six jerks in the corner with a tee-hee, you want every face split open. If you don’t have the instinct for the majority, you don’t make it as a comic. Koo went over to politics because the audience wanted it. Inside himself he had two conflicting instincts—give them what they want; stay out of politics—and he had to choose.

"Also with us tonight, a wonderful actress from Sweden, Birgit Söderman—that’s the way you pronounce it, folks. I said it wrong in a smorgasbord restaurant the other night and got pig’s knuckles. I used to make the same mistake with Juanita Izquerta, but then I got her knuckles."

Poor reaction, drop-off in audience response. Koo walks around, grinning—"But I wanna tell you, I love working TV"—and in fifteen seconds he’s got them back, and he’s forgotten the dead spot. Most mistakes he remembers, but gags like the Juanita Izquerta he keeps in no matter how bad the response. The trouble is, not enough people remember the name. She was never a big star, Juanita, she made a dozen pictures in the early fifties and that was it. But Koo had her along on some of his USO tours—the boys in Korea, that decade—and his female co-stars, the starlets and has-beens and almost-wases he trouped and shtupped on those tours, are always fresh in his mind, as though they’re still this minute young hard-breasted terrific chicks knocking them dead tonight in Vegas or Miami Beach just as Koo himself is knocking them dead here at this taping of The Koo Davis Special in beautiful downtown Burbank, California. It’s as though there’s a loyalty he owes those girls, to pretend they’re still hot stuff, still hot, that it could still be any one of them appearing on this show with him instead of the latest blonde, Jill Johnson, a laid-back girl comic of the new school, 26 and a sexual bearcat, with whom he would be cheerfully expending his post-tape hard-on. (Performing has always been good for his sex life.)

Even the first of the blondes, Honeydew Leontine, on his premier tour—Hawaii, Australia, a few shitty islands, a couple aircraft carrier flight decks—even Honeydew, a girl whose movie career never got higher than stooge for the Ritz Brothers and was over even before the end of World War Two, even Honeydew still shows up from time to time in his monologues, and the last time he’d trouped and shtupped with Honeydew was—Christ on a crutch, it was over thirty years ago! The first time, in Hawaii, was thirty-six years ago! Jesus! Honeydew and her big tits and her collection of stones—stones from every goddamn beach she’d ever walked on, she carried them around in burlap bags, everywhere she went—Honeydew must be almost sixty fucking years old by now. And Koo himself, if he stops to think about it, which he never does, is 63.

"Of course, television is different from the movies. When I started in pictures—I won’t say how long ago that was, but I taught William S. Hart how to ride—and in the old days you’d shoot the same scene over and over until the director was satisfied. It got to be a habit to repeat things until you got them right. It got to be a habit to repeat things until you got them right. It got to be a habit to repeat things until you got them right. It got to be a—"

Which is about par for that gag; the laugh starts at the beginning of the first repeat, a trickle that dwindles off, picks up again at the beginning of the second repeat, lulls, then picks itself up again before the finish of the second repeat (the audience anticipating the third), so Koo is pushing the third repeat into a growing laugh. Then he can stop and do his own laugh, and grin, and shake his head, and walk around, selecting the next gag while the audience works on the last one.

It was the USO taught Koo how to be a comedian. He’d done vaudeville, he’d done radio, he was already what was then called a "headliner," but it was the USO tours that taught him how to live with an audience, how to make it want to like him, how to make it feel afterward that he didn’t just make them laugh, he made them happy. In those early days he was just another radio comic, and the point of the touring shows was to give the troops a safe acceptable look at American tits and asses, so what he had to do when he stepped out on that temporary stage was give the GIs a reason to be happy to see him. Give them topical jokes ("Actually, I’m just here to buy cigarettes"), give them local jokes ("General Floyd sent me a message not to fraternize with the natives. At least that’s what the mama-san told me, when she hung up the phone."), then bring out Honeydew or Juanita or Laura or Linda or Karen or Lauren or Dolly or Fanny, run a couple dumb-blonde routines, leave the chick out there to sing a song, come back with the local commander (they were all hams at heart, every last one of them), do a little uplift, cut it with some mild sex gags, send the General or Admiral or Colonel or Commander off with Juanita or Linda or Lauren or Dolly, give their exit an innuendo the troops could enjoy, and by then they were his, because he was their link to special status. They were dogfaces, retreads, grunts, and he was hanging around with Generals and blonde chicks, but he was one of them. He could come on like the rawest of raw recruits ("Colonel O’Malley’s being terrific to us all. He’s gonna watch Honeydew for me while I go up all by myself to the rest camp at Bloody Nose Ridge." Or Pork Chop Hill, or St. Lo, or wherever the most dangerous spot in the neighborhood might be.), and he could come on like the cool wiseguy the troops all wished they were, and they learned to love him for it, and he learned to love them for loving him.

He got a lot of good press for the USO work, and in truth he deserved it. He made no money out of it, not directly, beyond the expenses of the troupe. He’d started the tours in the first place because he was medically 4-F in 1940 (bad ear and bad stomach and bad knee), and he felt guilty about it, and this was something he could do to make up for not being "in it." (He wound up "in it," in fact, more than most guys in uniform, being under fire or otherwise in danger countless times while riding in jeeps or trucks or planes or helicopters or transport ships or—once, on Okinawa, when three kamikazes came plunging through the ack-ack—in a rickshaw. "We have some wild drivers in California," he told the troops that afternoon, "but those three that came through this morning were ridiculous.")

And when the goddamn Vietnam thing came along, how was he supposed to know it was different? Why wasn’t it the Pacific Theater all over again, Korea all over again? It hadn’t been wrong to cheer our side ever before, and these were the same kids, weren’t they? Fighting the same slant-eyed son of a bitch gooks, weren’t they? So what the hell was the difference?

Permissiveness, it seemed like. A lot of fat, soft college kids hanging around on their campuses, young snotnoses, didn’t know their ass from their elbow. You looked at the real kids marching along in the same uniforms as before, you knew you had to make a choice, and Jesus the choice seemed easy. It should have been Stage Door Canteen all over again, it should have been, but it wasn’t.

Koo did the USO tours the same as ever, but when he was in the States the great National Debate was creeping into his comedy, and for the first time in his career he was coming out on stage and getting booed. Half the under-twenty-fives out there in America thought he was some sort of goddamn baby raper or something. He just couldn’t figure it out, and it made him mad, and the jokes got more and more political, and everything was just simply out of control.

He still doesn’t know why the goddamn Vietnam thing was different, but fairly early on he understood it was different. Maybe the slant-eyed gooks were the same (he wasn’t even sure about that anymore), and maybe the American uniforms were the same, but the kids inside that olive drab were something else. They laughed at the space-shot jokes and the bureaucracy jokes and the sex jokes ("I was supposed to do a nude centerfold for Cosmopolitan but it didn’t work out. They said all the interesting parts were behind the staple"), but there were tried-and-true lines they didn’t laugh at. "The General’s being terrific to us all. He’s gonna watch Dolly for me while I go up all by myself to the rest camp at Khe Sanh." They gave him a polite chuckle. They didn’t want to embarrass him, the sons of bitches, and they were polite to him!

You’re polite to a comedian, you’re killing him.

Then, when Vietnam ended, you couldn’t throw an asparagus spear without hitting six hypocrites. But not Koo; he wasn’t sure why he even had these convictions, but he’d stick by them. The career was thinning out, TV sponsors weren’t picking up their options, it was getting tougher to find writers whose material Koo could even understand, and he began to think long thoughts about retirement. He remained steadfast through the Nixon resignation and the Ford pardon, he even stuck when nobody invited him on that goddamn aircraft carrier in New York on Bicentennial Day; July 4th, 1976, the Tall Ships, and Koo watched it on television. He’d offered to work for the Ford campaign, and they’d gently let him down, and it wasn’t till later he figured it out; Koo Davis had become a reminder of too much bad history. Koo Davis!

But what did it for him at last was the investigations into the CIA, where it was made public that for several years in the sixties they’d had a phone tap and a mail check on him! On Koo! And when the asshole involved was asked by the Senate Committee why Koo Davis, the answer was that Koo had a lot of liberal friends. Did have.

Right after that came the revelations about the CIA experiments on human beings in hospitals, and that just put the icing on the cake. Maybe nobody else remembered what the Second World War had been all about, but Koo did, and he got mad: "The purpose of the experiments was to see if a human being could live without a brain. It turns out he can, if he’s in the CIA." And when it occurred to him he was now telling anti-government jokes, he realized the time had come to end his own long war. Back to civilian life, back to the home front, back to the world he’d left behind.

"And if you don’t like the show, folks, you’ll get a full refund at the door. But I know you’re gonna love it, and now I gotta go get ready, we’re in kind of a hurry today, the manufacturer is recalling my pacemaker."

With a grin, with a wave, Koo tosses the mike to a waiting stagehand and trots off. "It’s a good audience," he tells somebody on the way by, but that’s just words, he doesn’t even know who he’s talking to. They’re all good audiences for Koo Davis, they’ve been good audiences again for a year now. The split is over, the trouble’s over, everybody’s a good guy after all, and Koo is happy to relax once more into who he really is; a funny man, a funnyman, a good comic, an honest uncomplicated human being, living like every comic in the eternal Now, the Present, the Hereheisfolks, the Nowappearing. It’s a good life, safe at last, and it’s always happening right Now.

Koo has three minutes to drink a little ice water, get the makeup adjusted, have a quick last look at the script, play a little grabass with Jill, and then come out stage center into a group of eight tall lean dancing girls and his opening line of the show: "I can remember when legs like that were illegal." Now, he moves briskly along a cable-strewn alley created by the false walls of stacked sets, toward the door to a corridor leading to his dressing room, and as he reaches that first door somebody on his left says, "Mr. Davis?"

Koo turns his head. It’s one of the scruffy bearded young crew members; these hairy sloppy styles never will look to Koo like anything but shit. Behind the kid is a side exit from the studio, the red Taping light agleam above it. Koo is in a hurry, and he wants no problems. "What’s up?"

"Look at this, Mr. Davis," the kid says, and brings his hand up from his side, and when Koo looks down he is absolutely incredibly dumbfounded to see the kid is holding a pistol, a little black stubby-nosed revolver, and it’s pointed right at Koo’s head. Assassination! he thinks, though why anyone would want to assassinate him he has no idea, but on the other hand he has in his time played golf with one or two politicians who were later assassinated, and in his astonishment he opens his mouth to holler, and the kid uses his free hand to slap Koo very hard across the face.

And now a bag gets pulled down over his head from behind, a burlap bag smelling of moist earth and potatoes, and cable-like arms are grabbing him hard around the upper arms and chest, imprisoning him, lifting him, lifting his feet off the floor. He’s being carried, there’s a sudden rush of cooler air on the backs of his hands, they’re taking him outside. "Hey!" he yells, and somebody punches him very very hard on the nose. Jesus Christ, he thinks, not hollering anymore. Now they’re punching me on the nose.

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