Released today by Hard Case Crime books: The Comedy is Finished, by the late Donald E. Westlake.
Book description: 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…
The final, previously unpublished novel from the legendary Donald Westlake!
The place was Korea, January of '53, Koo's annual Christmas tour. Korea: that was the good war, maybe the best. For one thing, you could tell the good guys from the bad; also, there was never any chance of the American mainland being involved (Koo still remembers the ongoing silent panic along the Pacific Coast during World War Two, expecting the little yellow men to land at any moment); and besides that the whole damn war was taking place along the same small peninsula. Little danger, no ambiguity and only minor travel; that's the way to run a war.
Or almost. Nothing in life is perfect, and in Korea the imperfection was that nobody was supposed to go all-out. America wasn't used to pulling its punches in a war — who is? — so there was a certain amount of frustration, particularly after American defeats. Inchon Reservoir, for instance. That was where the rule-changes started; fighting a war without giving it your total effort, and in fact never even admitting it was a war: a police action, that what everybody was supposed to call it. "I didn't raise my boy to be a policeman." You could still joke about such things then; nobody knew they were serious.
But that was where everything started, and now Koo remembers seeing a bit of it: the beginning. The place was called Campok, a crossroads village in a fold among low steep hills. Damn little of the village was left, and for that matter damn little of the roads; everything in the area had been bombed, shelled, mined and fought over for three years. The hills were like the unshaven cheeks of giants, pocked with shellholes and stubbled with tree trunks and bits of underbrush, all smeared with a scum of wet cold snow. The world was in black and white and olive drab, with the shit-brown herringbone lines of jeep tracks quickly obscured by more of that same endless, wet, drifting, cold, goddamn un- pleasant snow. It wasn't like Christmas snow, deep and soft and somehow friendly and comfortable. It was war snow, tiny glittering wet flakes like bits of ground glass swirling among the low steep hills in the never-ending wet wind, ramming snowflakes in your ears and down your neck, giving the skin of your face the look and texture of dead fish. Your bones ached from it, and for the first time you could actually feel your skeleton, this twisted clumsy trestle inside your skin.
Carrie Carroll was the blonde that year, a hard-faced broad with a mammoth ass and sexual preferences that tended toward the violent; she liked to be forced a little. Already Koo was too old for all that crap, so by the time they reached Campok he and Carrie were just touring together, doing the shows, traveling in the same helicopters and jeeps, and otherwise leaving one another strictly alone. If Carrie was being forced onto her back by the occasional jeep driver or PIO officer, that was her business — and good for general troop morale as well.
There was a routine to these tours. Koo and his current leading lady and one or two special-material writers traveled by helicopter, while the rest of the troupe came on in a bus-and-truck convoy: musicians, dancers, technical crew, sound and light equipment, cameras and film crew, musical instruments, props and sets and a portable stage. Also portable toilets, dressing rooms for the stars and half a truck of costume changes. The next camp on the tour was never very far away, so while Koo and Carrie dawdled over a late breakfast the convoy would start out, groaning and jouncing along the mud-tracks, the technical crew playing poker while the musicians read Downbeat and Esquire. (Playboy wasn't around yet, though the first thin issue did appear later that year.) Some time later, Koo and Carrie would take the chopper flight, being seen off by the local brass (unit commanders, PIO officers, chaplains, one or two favored adjutants) and within an hour being greeted in an identical frozen hellhole by an identical set of brass, who would lay on as lavish a lunch as possible before Koo's first show — usually at one o'clock.
The area commander at Campok was a Colonel Boomer, a round-faced retread, insurance company executive in civilian life, who was obviously still trying to remember just how he'd managed to behave like a soldier a decade earlier during World War Two. (Mel Wolfe, the special-material writer that tour, stuttered out a thousand one-liners on Colonel Boomer's name, like a jammed machinegun helplessly producing bullets, but Koo couldn't use any of them. He would joke about vague faceless Authority for the troops' enjoyment, but he wouldn't put down individuals. Still, some of Mel's lines were pretty funny; at least, at the time.)
It was during lunch that Colonel Boomer mentioned the deserter. Two days before, a minor skirmish had unexpectedly turned into a quickly advancing thrust into gook territory, a town used by the Other Side as a command post was encircled, and among those captured was an American, one PFC Bramlett. He'd been broad- casting propaganda by loudspeaker toward the American positions. He was being held awaiting transport south, and Colonel Boomer with his round soft face and his earnest insurance man's eyes told Koo about the boy over lunch: "I just don't understand him, Koo," he kept saying, repeating the same words and shaking his head. "I can't understand a boy like that."
And Koo's reaction was immediate: "Why don't I have a word with him?"
Colonel Boomer looked startled, then doubtful. "What good would that do?"
At that time Koo still believed that he understood all Americans, and that all Americans understood him. It was arrogance, it was the simple belief (which he shared with most people then) that the United States was an uncomplicated straightforward upright nation and that he himself was completely, quintessentially, an American. Which was why it was so easy for him to say, "Who knows? Maybe I could help the boy."
The Colonel remained doubtful, but Koo was insistent, and inevitably he got his own way; he did have weight to throw around, when he wanted. That evening, therefore, after his second and final show and before dinner at the officers' mess, he was taken to see Private Bramlett.
The setting was an eight-foot cube dug into the side of a hill. Three of the walls were packed with earth, exuding cold and damp, and the curving wooden outside wall contained only a windowless door. On the plank floor stood a cot, a metal folding chair and a small square wooden table. A bare electric bulb on the wall over the door was the only source of light. The room was small, dark, cold, wet and uncomfortable, but it had one great advantage over every other accommodation in the vicinity; it was safe. Built into the southern slope of a steep hill, it was proof against mortars, grenades, bombs, snipers or anything else the gooks might toss this way. Private Bramlett was going to be returned undamaged from his war.
Bramlett had been told that Koo Davis wanted to see him, and had readily agreed to the meeting, but still it was something of a shock to walk into that dank room and have the emaciated boy step forward with such bashful polite eagerness, bony hand tentatively extended for a shake (but ready to be withdrawn at once, without offense, if Koo chose to ignore it), and to have the boy say, "Mr. Davis, it's terrific to meet you. I'm a big fan of yours."
Koo automatically took the hand, which felt like a paper bag filled with jumbled nails and twine, and automatically smiled in response to the compliment. But before he could mouth the automatic thank you and one of the stock gaglines for meeting a fan ("You've got a funny sense of humor") he caught up with himself, and quickly frowned. Clutching harder to the boy's hand — not a handshake now, but a grip expressing concern — he said, with spontaneous anxiety, "Jesus, guy, what happened to you?"
"Oh, well…"The boy's eyes slid away, he seemed both saddened and amused, lost briefly in memory; then, easing his hand out of Koo's grasp, he faced Koo directly again, as though wanting to be very explicit and very clear; but all he said was, "I guess, a lot of things."
"Jesus, I'll say. Let's sit down, let's talk about it."
So they sat together. The boy insisted on Koo taking the cot, on which the blankets had been carefully smoothed — "It's more comfortable, sir, it really is" — while he himself sat on the folding chair. (A part of the arrangement had been that a guard would remain in the room during Koo's visit, so a GI stood leaning against the door through the whole conversation, but neither Koo nor Private Bramlett paid him any attention.)
Koo had planned an opening question, though nothing else: "You're in a lot of trouble, aren't you?"
"Oh, well. I'll be all right." The boy's manner was strange, so much so that Koo wondered from time to time if he were drugged, despite the battalion doctor's earlier statement to the contrary. Bramlett seemed completely aware of his situation, but instead of being frightened, or angry, or aggressive, or cunning, he was simply passive, his expression alternating between earnestness (when trying to explain himself) and a kind of mournful humorousness (when reminded of his current fix). He was like someone who knows the joke is on him and who can see no way to handle it except to try to act like a good sport.
In the boy's presence, in the face of this odd self-containment, Koo's earlier assurance drained away, and he no longer knew what he wanted to tell the boy, what he wanted to ask, what he'd thought he might accomplish here. (Rescue; it was as simple as that: he'd seen himself as a personification of America, rescuing this strayed lamb, this prodigal son, bringing him back to the safety of American truth.) Looking at the boy now, seeing how foreign Private Bramlett had become — foreign, alien, unearthly, almost unhuman — Koo was abashed, an emotion he rarely felt and had difficulty recognizing. All he understood was that the boy made him uncomfortable, and he struggled against an instinctive sense of dislike.
Hiding that dislike, from himself as much as from the boy, and struggling for a footing in this conversation, Koo fell back on small talk, that inevitable first question to any casually-met GI: "Where you from?"
But the boy had none of the usual answers. "America," he said, and let it go at that.
"You have to be from somewhere, you can't — "But then it occurred to Koo (wrongly, he later thought) that the boy might be embarrassed at the reminder of his home and parents, and was evading the question for that reason; so he switched to another standard conversation filler, extending his cigarettes toward the boy, saying, "Smoke?"
"Thank you." The boy took a cigarette, but at first merely held it between the fingers of both hands, smiling wistfully at it, rolling it back and forth as though to study it from all sides. Glancing almost playfully at Koo, he said, "America has the best cigarettes."
"America has the best everything," Koo told him, and extended his Zippo lighter with the logo sketch of himself outlined on its chrome side.
"I used to think that." The boy puffed, leaning forward over the Zippo flame, having trouble making the cigarette catch fire. His lips and eyelids were trembling; Koo watched them in shock and disgust. He couldn't help himself, he found the boy unlikeable, unappetizing; like a leper, a child molester. The illness had become the person.
The cigarette finally smoldering, the boy leaned back, the metal chair squeaking under him. "Thank you," he said.
It was wrong to dislike the boy, wrong and surprising and useless. Before entering the room Koo had felt both curiosity and pity, without that automatic hatred for the Traitor which seemed so inappropriate toward someone who had been brainwashed, who had been subjected to techniques; but in person the boy was physically repellent, grublike, pale and anemic, almost boneless.
Struggling against the revulsion, Koo pushed himself to an exaggerated display of concern, leaning toward the boy, saying, "How'd this happen, son? How'd you get into this?"
The weak smile tinged the boy's face again: "Well, I saw the truth."
"You were brainwashed, huh?" Koo was eager to have the boy explained, to excuse his unloveliness. "Wha'd they do to you? Do you want to talk about it?"
Looking troubled, ineffectual, the boy said, "They didn't do anything to me, they just showed me the truth." Then, more strongly, more earnestly, he said, "Mr. Davis, I never knew the truth about America before."
There was no way any longer for Koo completely to hide his dislike; it emerged as impatience. "Oh, come on, boy. Do you think I don't know the truth about America?"
"No, sir, I don't think you do." The boy spoke calmly, not argumentatively, as though stating an obvious fact.
Koo leaned back, looking challengingly at the boy, saying, "Tell me this truth of yours."
"Yes, sir." The boy was polite but unflinching, weak but determined." America's a rich country," he said." The richest country in the world. But we stay rich by exploiting other countries, poor countries. We're an imperial power, and the thing is, under the present system we don't have any choice. You see, capitalism requires aggression to maintain itself."
All of which was said with as much sincerity as though it meant something. Koo, regretting having initiated this interview, impatient to get it done with, no longer even trying to hide his dislike, said, "Don't gobbledygook at me, boy."
"It's not gobbledygook, sir. You see, the capitalist system — "
"And don't talk to me about capitalist systems. America's no capitalist system, America's a democracy."
"No, sir, I'm sorry, it isn't." The smile Koo had thought of as weak now returned to the boy's face, and Koo saw that it was actually mocking. "What do you think we're doing here?" the boy asked. "In Korea?"
"Resisting Communist aggression," Koo snapped. Even while he was saying the words, he knew they were his own form of gobbledygook, stock phrases from government announcements or newspaper editorials, but he couldn't help himself. "Coming to the assistance," he went on, "of one of our partner nations in the free world."
The smile was openly mocking now; or at least it seemed so to Koo. The boy said, "Mr. Davis, you've been in Korea a lot. Do you think this is a free country?"
Koo hadn't thought about it at all, and he didn't now. He was embarrassed at the banality of the things he'd just said, and he struggled toward another mode of argument, saying, "Son, all of Korea I've ever seen is Army bases and helicopters, but I can guarantee you this much: The people of South Korea are a hell of a lot more free than the Communist slaves in North Korea."
"But that isn't true." The boy's smile had gone again, replaced by his earnest-and-sincere expression. "North Korea is a People's Republic," he said, solemnly, as though the words were magic. "The people rule themselves. In South Korea, there's nothing but a puppet government set up by the Americans. America rules South Korea."
Koo shook his head, frowning at the wrongness of this boy. He was caught up now simply in the argument, no longer trying to understand or make contact with the boy himself, but only to pursue the difference of opinion. (Another linkage; this was the first time in his life that Koo ever tried to enunciate his political assumptions. Everything did start there, a quarter century ago, in Korea, and nobody even noticed.) Speaking out of his own conviction, but choosing his words as a debater would, for their value in the argument rather than their usefulness in clarifying his thoughts, he said, "Son, you've turned everything upside down. The United States isn't like that. We don't run any country except our own. Look around you. Who controls every Communist nation in the world? Russia! They've just been filling your head with a lot of crap up there." Then, still wanting somehow to champion the boy despite his unlikeableness, to rescue him if it was at all possible, Koo said, "They starved you, right? And they don't let you sleep. Then, when they've got you worn down, they fill your mind with all this garbage."
But the boy was suffering some sort of political equivalent of rapture of the deep; he didn't want to be rescued, he wanted to drown. "Mr. Davis," he said, with all his pale fervor, "it isn't like that at all. We had classes, we learned things. We could ask all the questions we wanted. They showed us facts, history, things our own leaders had said."
"That we run South Korea?"
"That the Western nations, Europe and America, only survive by exploiting the colonial nations."
His irritation growing, Koo said, "This is utter crap. Let me put you straight, once and for all. America is a rich country, and you know why? Any kid in school can tell you this. One, we're rich in raw materials, coal and oil and metal and wood and water and whatever we want. Two, we're a goddamn bright people. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison — Americans invented America. What've these Koreans got? What did they ever do for themselves? America is the first and only absolutely free country in the world, even more than England and France and anybody, and all we're interested in in the world is democracy and freedom. Do you think we fought the Second World War for colonies? What colonies? Americans are idealistic, son, that's the only reason we're here. For an ideal. For freedom."
"I know you believe that, Mr. Davis — "
"Of course I believe it, because it's true! Every American believes it, for the same reason. What's the matter with you?"
"American aggression," the boy said, calm, dogged, hearing nothing, pushing his own parroted lessons into every silence, "robs the Korean people of self-determination. It is the historical reality that the capitalist aggressor must always widen the area of — "
"Jesus Christ! Listen to yourself! Do you even know what those words mean?"
"Yes, sir, I do. I'll tell you what they mean, sir, every — "
"You will not," Koo said, getting to his feet. "You already told me too much. And now I'll tell you something, boy. You aren't even a person anymore. I don't know what you were before they captured you, but all you are now is some sort of stupid machine, you just jabber these words and they don't make any sense." Koo had worked himself up, he was almost visualizing himself as America personified, facing down Communism personified in this pitiful boy, as James Cagney used to personify America facing down the Gestapo in World War Two movies; but that was too ridiculous, too melodramatic for the true situation, and Koo's reaction to his own excess was immediate embarrassment, and a turning down of the rhetoric. "I hope you come out of it all right," he said, grudgingly. "I hope you get back to your right mind."
"I'm not crazy, Mr. Davis. I just know more than I used to, that's all."
"Yeah, well — "But Koo shrugged and shook his head, seeing it was hopeless. No rescue was possible, no human contact was possible; there was nothing to do but leave. "Good luck to you," he said, curt and impersonal.
"Thank you, Mr. Davis." Some pale green flame burned within the boy, gave him his sustenance, provided him with the solemnity for what he said next: "But I won't need luck. I have Truth, and History, on my side." The capital letters were clearly sounded, brave flourishes in his gray speech.
"Oh, yeah?" Koo's jokes were rarely sour, but this one was: "Well, one of them's picking your pocket," he said, which was an exit line, on which he left, and later over dinner with Colonel Boomer he agreed that he too couldn't understand a boy like that. "How does it happen?" The officers around the table shook their heads.
By morning, with the familiar but still exhausting routine of the next move and the farewell and the chopper flight and the next hello, Private Bramlett slipped out of Koo's memory all but completely, and he hasn't actually thought about the boy from that day till this. Now Koo wonders what did finally happen. Did he go to jail? Did he smarten up, did he recover from his brainwashing? Where is he now, Private Bramlett, a man nearing fifty by this time; does he still believe the things he said to Koo all those years ago?
And does Koo still believe the things he said to Bramlett?
Buy The Comedy is Finished on Amazon.