No one could accuse Donald Westlake of playing it safe. After establishing himself as the master of the comic heist-caper with The Hot Rock (1970) and Bank Shot (1972), he might well have gone on giving us Dortmunder Gang stories forever — along with annual installments of his successful paperback series (under the ”Richard Stark” pseudonym) about more grimly realistic crooks. Instead, since the late 1970s the prolific Westlake has tried something new almost every time out-from droll literary satire (A Likely Story) to downbeat psychological police drama (Levine) to grand-scale African adventure (Kahawa) and an even wilder send-up of the supermarket tabloids (Trust Me on This). He has also branched out into screenplay writing with The Stepfather (1987) and The Grifters (1990).
And now-well, how’s this for a premise? God’s tired of humans. Bored silly with them. ”They have been fruitful. They have multiplied. There are now five billion of the damn things. …too many, too grubby, too willful.” So the Almighty commands an angel named Ananayel to rush down to earth and arrange its absolute and final end-but not by supernatural zapping. No, Ananayel’s task is somehow to nudge humanity into annihilating itself, sort of unintentionally, with those involved more or less exercising ”free will.”
It’s a tall order. But the angel does come up with a scheme, one that remains tantalizingly unclear through the book’s strong first half. All we know is that for the plan to work, Ananayel must get five very different people from around the world — a Russian victim of Chernobyl, an HIV-infected Kenyan prostitute, a Brazilian singer, a Chinese student-revolutionary, and a small-time American burglar — to converge on upstate New York, where a flaky physicist named Marlon Philpott is experimenting with ”strange matter.” Each of these five ”triggers” needs to be poked and prodded into action, which means that Ananayel has to assume an entertaining array of often uncomfortable human shapes: Manhattan bag lady, Nairobi murder victim, KGB agent, etc. And there’s a queasy fascination — imagine The Bridge of San Luis Rey relocated to The Twilight Zone — in watching the angel’s pawns, motivated by a raw mixture of idealism, desperation, and greed, as they move blindly toward the Big Finish.
Soon after Westlake has launched this neat gizmo of a plot, however, he seems to lose steam. The actual coming-together of those five key players turns out to be more clunky than clever. Ditto the modus operandi for the planet’s actual destruction. Westlake attempts to stir things up by giving Ananayel a powerful enemy: a demon who — nice irony — vows to save the world so that Lucifer can continue to delight in the agonies of the human race. But despite the high stakes (and a couple of astral duels), the suspense dwindles considerably in the later chapters — especially once the angel discovers love, human-style, and starts having second thoughts.
As an apocalyptic thriller, then, Humans won’t keep you up all night. As a comic fantasy — part supernatural farce, part socionuclear satire — it’s marred by periodic eruptions of sentimentality and brutal melodrama. (Two of the principal characters, after all, are terminally ill.) But, scene by scene, Westlake writes with such juicy, no-frills vigor that a lot of humans — particularly those with a weakness for the occult — will want to take a chance on this risky, zesty concoction. B