Miracle of miracles, we finished it! But for the first time since this blog began, we are a day late in posting, because we didn't finish it until this morning, when we sat side by side and worked it out together.
In our defense, we were both preoccupied yesterday by preparations for a large gathering at our house, and during that gathering, we handed the puzzle to a friend to look at, to see if he could add anything to the, at-that-time-little-filled-in top section. He didn't, but probably sat looking at it for about an hour. In any event, once the party was over, and our heads cleared a bit, we got it all to come together.
Looking at it now, things like TAKENOPRISONERS (20A: Be ruthless) seem so obvious, but almost none of the Downs came easily. STEINMART (9D: Chain of off-price department stores) (?) Never heard of it. TOSSDOWN (9D: Guzzle) ... would have preferred "gulp down." ETHAN (2D: Brand of literature) Never heard of him. NOOKS (3D: Where seekers may find hiders) ... tough.
In short, we had troubles up there. I think it was ONCUE (18D: As if scripted), and pure guesses at GHANA (10D: Home of the world's largest artificial lake) and FOSSE (13D: "Pippin" Tony winner) that finally allowed us to get the necessary toe-hold.
The entire bottom, by comparison, was done fairly quickly, partly because 53A: Dual diner dish (APPLEPIEALAMODE) was just in (almost) last Friday! OK, it was just "Pie a la mode" and it was clued as "Hot-and-cold menu item" by Dana Motley, but still ... it rang a bell and went right in. And once that was in, SPARETIRE (28D: Likely result of excess 17- and 53-Across) (almost a Satruday theme!) seemed somewhat obvious. (It didn't help enough for us to get 17A: Malted alternatives, right away, though!)
Loved STENOPAD (35D: One bound to hold notes?) and AUDIT (49D: Tax burden?), but I'm not entirely sure that the clue for RAKES (11D: Ground crew gear?) needed that question mark.
We had a tough time with this one, but it was very satisfying to finish it, even a day late. Perhaps circumstances made it a bit tougher than it otherwise would have been, but really, it's hard to say.