THE AX is a book about murder --- not crazed psychotic murder, but cold-blooded, intelligent murder --- survival of the fittest murder. Meet Burke Devore, the protagonist and antagonist of this twisted and terrifying novel. He seems like a regular guy --- fifty-something-years-old, married with two grown children --- but he's been out of work for over two years. And he's a killer.
What makes an ordinary hardworking man a killer? Westlake explores what happens to a man's mind and spirit when he is axed, fired, let go. After twenty-five years of devoted service as a paper mill manager, Burke is laid off when his mill merges with another. Suddenly he is no longer needed. At first the grim reality of the situation does not hit home. After all, there's a severance package and back vacation pay to look forward to. There's the promise of new opportunities on the horizon. But two years later there is nothing on the horizon for Burke. His children are growing up and leaving home, his marriage is strained, and he is still unemployed.
That's when Burke decides to take charge of his destiny. No, he doesn't go out and buy more resume paper. Instead he masterminds a plan to eliminate the competition. He knows at age fifty-plus he is not an ideal candidate for a job. At best he'd be the second or third choice --- if he was lucky. In Burke's very logical and intelligent mind, the only answer is for him to terminate his competitors. Not a violent man by nature, Burke puts all of his energies into tracking down these unlucky men --- who like him are unemployed for similar reasons --- and murders them.
The idea sounds almost maudlin, and it would be if Burke was this crazy loon running around the paper mill drowning people in vats of pulp. But here's the thing --- he doesn't go "crazy," at least like you'd think. He has a plan and successfully executes it...no pun intended. Burke is not some weird off-the-wall character. He's an average man with an above average problem who decides to change his fate in a very uncommon way. Although satirical, the frightening thing about this novel is you almost believe it could happen. And you even find yourself understanding Burke's position, even while you are sickened by his actions.
The first time Burke kills it goes surprisingly well. No complications, no big mess, and he's home in time for dinner. But the next one goes terribly wrong, and for one night Burke writes a confession and thinks about turning himself in. He can't believe that he is a murderer. Then he wakes up and feels better. His conscience has cleared with his tears from the night before. He rationalizes:
"How terrible I felt last night. Tense, anxious, terrified, unable to sleep. I'm glad writing this made it possible for me to lose consciousness for a while. I meant all of this last night, I know I did. Everything seemed so hopeless...I'm not used to this sort of thing, it would be hard enough to do it even if they all went smoothly and cleanly...I sympathize with the me from last night, who felt such despair...and apologized to his victims. I too would apologize to them, if I could. I'd leave them alone, if I could. I take the confession with me, folded in my pocket. I'll burn it later."
So Burke continues onward with his demented plan, and never looks back. Although fast-paced and extremely suspenseful, THE AX is not always an easy novel to read because you fluctuate between wanting him to get caught and wanting him to escape. By the time I got to the end I knew only one thing for sure --- no job is worth killing for or dying for. I hope I never run into a Burke. I hope I do not know one now.
Reviewed by Dana Schwartz on May 1, 1998