I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: 2020 update (originally posted 2012)
Can the work of Charles Willeford be classified as crime fiction? At first, the answer seems to be an unqualified Yes.
Quentin Tarantino said, “I see Pulp Fiction as closer to modern-day crime fiction, a little closer to Charles Willeford.”
Conventional crime fiction masters Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, James Lee Burke, and James Crumley all blurbed Charles Willeford as one of their own.
The Library of America collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s has Willeford’s Pick-Up alongside canonical work by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.
Certainly, being hailed as a crime fiction writer is how Willeford found his readers. Elmore Leonard’s quote, “No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford,” has adorned every edition of every Willeford book featuring Miami cop Hoke Moseley.
But those who think Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard are truly birds of a feather still don’t really know Willeford.
For this survey, the confusing bibliography is separated into five categories.
If pressed, I’d nominate three books as Willeford’s greatest: Something About a Soldier (memoir), The Burnt Orange Heresy (later novel) and New Hope for the Dead (Hoke Moseley). For me that’s an easy call; I don’t have to think about it much.
However, perhaps the real reason to engage with Willeford is not any one particular book. The work in totality is unlike anything else, and anyone digging into this idiosyncratic canon will surely make their own judgements.
In an effort to solve a few more mysteries, I interviewed the two deepest Willeford readers I know:
Don Herron met Willeford before becoming his biographer.
Ray Banks‘s own vital work as a writer is somewhat in the Willeford tradition.
The interviews were done in 2012, when this article was originally posted on DTM.
During the 2020 pandemic, I had time to re-read much of the oeuvre, re-edit this essay, and include two new pages, a reprint of Banks’ own criticism and a transcription of a “new” radio interview of Willeford himself.
Proletarian Laughter (1948)
A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided (1977)
Off The Wall (1980)
Something About a Soldier (1986)
I Was Looking for a Street (1988)
Cockfighter Journal: The Story of a Shooting (1989)
Willeford writes simple declarative sentences. His patrimony is the surreal humor of Franz Kafka, the hard-boiled action of Dashiell Hammett, the existential cry of Albert Camus, and the no-frills machismo of Ernest Hemingway.
To be fair, many American male authors could claim the same patrimony. What made Willeford Willeford was twenty years as a professional soldier. He joined the U.S. Army in 1935, learned to service planes, shoot guns, and shoe horses, graduated to tank commander, fought in World War II, and finally left active duty in 1956.
The very first book Willeford published, Proletarian Laughter (1948), has seven short and brutal “Schematics” that must be about his war experiences. Willeford’s nascent literary voice can be heard in “Schematic Number 1.”
A group of us soldiers were standing in back of a tank keeping warm by the engine. Everybody in town was waiting for the word to move out. We had our coats and gloves off and the blast from the radial engine delighted us.
The tank commander who ran the tank came out of the basement of the house the tank was parked next to, and joined the group. He told us that there was a blonde and an old lady downstairs and that he had raped the blonde. The old lady had raised so much hell about it that he had to kill her before he could finish raping the blonde.
That started a little conversation among us. One guy told the tank commander that when the Military Government came in a couple of days, and the blonde reported it, he would get into trouble. All of us told him about the same thing. He was worried about it, and finally he decided about the only thing he could do was to go down and shoot the blonde too. He was a nice guy though and asked first if anybody else wanted to rape the blonde. Nobody did because it was too cold.
He went back downstairs and we could hear the noise of his submachine gun. It sounded muffled down there in the basement. He came back upstairs to the tank and said he sure felt a lot better. He didn’t want to get in a jam over no damned heinie. It wasn’t long after that that we got the word and we all moved out.
Given the title, one would expect that the late-in-life Something About a Soldier (1986) might take up the thread of the early Schematics, but, no, it only covers Willeford’s teenage years when he joined the Army to escape the Depression. The book is a masterpiece, full of amusing and occasionally harrowing stories about hierarchy, cooking, whoring, driving, flying, sailing, horseback riding, and horseshoeing — but there’s nothing about battle.
At the close, the very young Willeford is happy to get a promotion and a pay raise.
It just went to prove that all a man had to do in the Army was to live right, work hard, and all the good things would eventually come his way.
It had certainly worked out that way for me.
It’s rather an abrupt end to such a long and complex tale. Confused, the reader turns the final blank page to find the author bio:
Charles Willeford served in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force for twenty years, retiring from the U.S.A.F. as a master sergeant in 1956. During World War II he was a tank commander with the 10th Armored Division and was awarded the Silver Star, for gallantry in action; the Bronze Star, for valor; the Purple Heart, with one oak leaf cluster; and the Luxembourg Croix de Guerre, during the Battle of the Bulge. Following the war he was a rifle company sergeant for three years with the Army of Occupation in Japan. He reenlisted in the U.S.A.F. as a base historian.
In other words, while this may be Something about a soldier, it is hardly Everything.
Not too many professional soldiers end up as literary types. Willeford knew from the beginning that it was almost a contradiction.
In the Army, if a man has scruples of any kind, his only protection against ridicule is to keep them to himself. I had already noticed the line I had drawn for myself was getting narrower and fainter as time passed. If a man wasn’t careful the Army could coarsen him, and I knew I had to protect my sensitivity if I was ever going to write anything first-rate.
How can one be emotionally vulnerable and be a soldier? The answer is: you can’t. Willeford didn’t get out of the Army when he was teenager. He stayed there for twenty years and killed a lot of men. He lost a lot of sensitivity.
Willeford invented the phrase “immobilized man” to describe the physically active yet emotionally stunted male. Parsing the feelings of emotionally stunted men would become Willeford’s life work. This was also a preoccupation of Kafka, Hammett, Camus, and Hemingway, but all those authors were comparatively direct. Willeford took the long way around.
Humor would be key. For Willeford, humor was the path. If something terrible was also absurd, then perhaps laughter is the only reasonable response.
In the barracks, Willeford and his friend D’Angelo observed a strange scenario: A few hours before an Igorot is shot by the authorities for cannibalism, he is chased around his cell by a drunk Texan who wants to convert the Igorot to Christianity (so that the Igorot could be forgiven and go to heaven).
This is is a terrible situation, literally one of life and death, but the two young soldiers roar with laughter.
“You know,” D’Angelo said after we sat down at the table and filled our plates, “that was the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life. My stomach still hurts. But I don’t think I’ll ever tell anybody about it.”
“Me neither,” I said. “But I might write something about it someday.”
“That’s the best way, Will. That way, nobody’ll understand why we laughed.”
D’Angelo laughed, reached out, and speared another pork chop.
D’Angelo’s comment, “That way, nobody’ll understand why we laughed,” foreshadows how many readers would misunderstand Willeford’s books.
Not that being understood ever mattered to Willeford much. In his excellent biography, Don Herron quotes a valuable letter written by Willeford to his old bunkmate (and major player in Something About A Soldier) Elmer Canavin:
I remember once a technical order at Ft. Benning that came out about “how to use a shovel.” It was so complicated that no one could follow it. I was a first sergeant, and as a gag (one that only I could appreciate), I put it on the board with a company roster, stating that everyone would read and put their intitials after their name stating they they understood it. I got initials from everyone except three holdouts. I had the change of quarters take these three into the dayroom and read the order over and over until they finally said they understood it, and initialed it. Things like this kept me sane in the army, and I, of course, never explained.
Like any first sergeant, all of Willeford’s major male characters love to tell other men what to do. In almost every book there are lectures by men who think they are right.
“Lectures by men who think they are right” is Willeford’s classic satirical voice.
While these self-involved, lecturing men aren’t totally right, they aren’t completely wrong, either. Just like men in the Army, they defer to men above them in rank, willing to listen to another lecturer if need be. If they disagree with the superior officer, they won’t say, but will file it away for future reference. They (or their superior officers) are never completely wrong. They know a lot. Most of it is right. But some of it is ridiculous. Willeford is very careful to always let the reader decide.
It’s an almost entirely male culture that Willeford presents in his serious work. In the obit he wrote for Fred Shaw, one can tell he respected his female friends, and everyone who has met Betsy Willeford likes her and thought it was a good marriage. That’s good to know, because without those clues it would be easy to class Willeford as deeply sexist, if not misogynist. In Something About a Soldier, there are no romances for young CW, just innumerable “pieces of ass.” He scores some of the local women at his first posting by paying them off with a local body oil, Honeymoon Lotion. He concludes:
I learned a few things about women in the Philippines. Women are very simple creatures. If you want a woman, any woman, probe around until you find the one thing in life she really wants. Then, when you give it you her, she’s yours.
It’s that simple.
Again, the male lecture. Many men probably do feel that women are “very simple creatures.” Willeford might have thought that way at times, but he also surely knows that he’d have a hard time getting this point across in civilized mixed company. He takes pleasure in being the lunk-headed male in the room, letting that demon have its way for a moment. The primitive is acknowledged from the vantage point of the sophisticated. Willeford credited Henry Miller as an influence in this regard.
Although published second, I Was Looking for a Street (1988) covers even earlier ground: Willeford experienced some tough years as a young hobo before joining the army.
When the book opens, Willeford is seven and part of his grandmother’s well-to-do family. His father died when he was two and his mother had only a year to live. When the Depression begins, Willeford hits the road.
Something About a Soldier has more impact overall, but I Was Looking For a Street has a superb central section that explains a good deal about Willeford’s process. It’s very introspective, yet also ideal for reading aloud:
There is a good deal to know about hats, and nobody knows all there is to know about them. The important thing is to come to terms with hats in general, and then, if you are still up to it, you can examine your relationship, in depth, with one specific hat. That’s what I am trying to do now: I want to close the relationship with a cowboy hat I had for a long time. Every time the memory of this particular hat battles its way up through my subconscious, demanding that I take a closer look at it, I have pushed it back down again.
It was what they call a ten-gallon cowboy hat. This kind of hat will hold ten gallons of water, one gallon at a time, before it starts to leak through the crown; and a horse can drink out of the hat, one gallon at a time. In a few more years, when we eventually accept the metric system, it will be probably called a 37.5 liter hat, and then it will be so absurd that I will never be able to write about it. At this point, even after all these years, I am still not sure I can write about it.
For the foreground, I will return for a moment to the hats in my closet. The straw Homburg, the hat I mentioned in the first paragraph, was purchased in Atlanta as the shooting ended on my movie, Cockfighter. I don’t know why I wanted the hat, but the important thing was that I could afford to buy it. It was twenty dollars, and I intended to deduct the cost from my income tax that year because I wore the hat to an interview with a reporter on the Atlanta Journal Constitution Sunday Magazine. As I rule I usually forget to deduct most of the things I am entitled to deduct because I forget to write them down at the time. But I kept the receipt for the hat, and if I am ever interviewed again by an Atlanta reporter I will wear it again. I would have deducted lunch, too, but he (his paper) paid for that. So much for the straw Homburg. I put it on once in awhile, when I come across it in the closet, but I never wear it outside. This is a hat I am keeping for interviews with Atlanta reporters, and that is all.
There is a little story about each hat in my closet, very short little stories without much point to them, but that is because I am talking about hats in general, in the aggregate, this big bunch of hats in there, and I am trying to get them out of the closet.
There is a tennis hat in there, for example, with netting on both sides for ventilation. I no longer play tennis, but if I walked around all the time wearing this hat (powder blue, with white netting), people would think I was a tennis player.
“How’s your backhand, Charles?”
“Still working on it,” I could lie, with a shy smile.
I occasionally wear the tennis hat when I drive my car. At stop lights, I suppose, in the morning, other drivers look over at me and think, “There’s a man going to play tennis,” or, if it is late in the afternoon, “There’s a man going home after ten sets of tennis.” I undoubtedly get a lot of unearned credit as an athlete that way, just by wearing my tennis hat in the car.
But I don’t play tennis. I quit tennis in 1939, after the girl I was engaged to beat me three love sets in a row. These humiliating sets were played in Exposition Park, at the public courts, in Los Angeles. After the last set I broke our engagement immediately, and I have never played tennis with anyone again. I have played some squash and handball, but not tennis. Even when I was a very young man I understood in a vague, or intuitive, way, how to cut my losses. If I had kept on playing tennis, you see, sooner or later I would have played tennis with a woman who would have let me win a few games during a set. My ex-fiancee, Edna May, was at least honest enough not to let me win a single game.
Sometimes, when I put my tennis hat on to drive to the supermarket a block away, I think about the girl, and about what my life would have been like if she had let me win a game or two in each set, and about what our married life would have been like.
I always conclude that it would have been hell, sheer, unmitigated hell.
Hats, you see, lead to these introspections, but when Edna May beat me those three love sets I wasn’t wearing a hat. I was wearing a pair of blue corduroy pants, a black cowboy shirt with white pearl snap buttons, tennis shoes without socks, and I was playing with a borrowed tennis racquet and Edna May’s balls. I was also unemployed, having just been discharged from the U.S. Regular Army. Perhaps, psychologically, I was beaten before I started to play, but I was playing to win. I tried truly, and when she kept acing those serves past me, again and again, I wanted to kill her. When the final set ended my shirt was sopping and perspiration had run down my legs and into my shoes. There was a solitary drop of water on Edna May’s nose, and she flicked it off with her left forefinger. I threw the borrowed racquet at her, but it went into the net instead of hitting her between the eyes. I then left the court without a word. I never saw or talked to Edna May again. An abrupt break, I decided, would be the best thing for both of us. I was living with my grandmother, and Edna May called five different times. My grandmother tried to coax me into talking with Edna May, but I would not go to the phone. I had thought she might call once, or even twice, but I never expected five calls. For Edna May, that was a lot of calls. I wanted to talk to her every time she called, but I would not. She was a beautiful girl with blue-green eyes, and she wore blond hair long and in the same style that Pricilla Lane wore hers in the movie, Four Daughters. Edna May’s right breast was about a half-inch fuller than her left breast. She played a lot of tennis, and she was the intermediate women’s champion of the Los Angeles Public Parks. (I still don’t know what “intermediate” means in terms of tennis championships.)
What I do know is, she didn’t let me win a single game.
Another hat in my closet I like is the plaid deerstalker that Jean Ellen brought back from England as a present. Jean Ellen was an English professor who quit teaching a few years ago to start a one-woman commune up in North Carolina. But when she bought me the deerstalker she was still deeply into the teaching of English and she had spent a summer vacation taking a course in eighteenth century English literature at the University of London. She thought the hat was an amusing gift for me. Perhaps it is, but it is all wool and much too warm to wear in Florida.
There are a good many other hats in the closet: two billed caps, a poplin and a soft wool English motoring cap; a blue felt hat, which I wore in a picture on a dust jacket once; a black Superfly hat with a studded leather hatband; two Panamas that I bought in Balboa, Panama, which were made in Ecuador; a “CAT” workman’s cap; and a few assorted canvas and terrycloth hats suitable for wearing at the beach. Each one of these hats has a little story to go with it, too, but now I am ready to write about the cowboy hat and what happened to me because of it in 1933.
I know now that I can write about it because I was able to write about my break-up with Edna May. At one time, both in conversation and in writing, to avoid certain painful subjects, I would invoke the word “inchoate.” But “inchoate” is a copout word.
Nothing is inchoate.
It is too easy to judge a sinner. Who among us can’t relate to terrible human behavior? It is up to a sophisticated artist to parse these complex emotions.
“Nothing is inchoate.”
As Willeford works through his desensitizing experiences, his grim truths generate surreal satire and endless quotidian detail. If the reader is willing to go along for this uncomfortable journey, important answers might just within reach.
Like Something About A Soldier, I Was Looking for A Street ends on an up note. Since it is Willeford, that up note naturally has a false echo, but even so, these books ultimately celebrate life. You feel good after reading them.
The short A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided (1977) is sensational. Willeford liked it enough himself to self-publish a thousand copies, which to this day is the only full printing.
Some twenty hours before they brought the old man into the ward to die, my internal and external hemorrhoids had been lopped off. Unconscious during the operation, I had felt nothing. Despite the horrible stories told me by other victims of hemorrhoid amputation, the shot preceding the anesthetic had lulled me into the optimistic belief that I could put up with a little post-operative pain for a few minutes. What the hell? There were pain-killers like morphine they could give a man; right? And were there not drugs, new and wonderful, around nowadays I had never heard of that could do practically anything?
I was wrong and there were none. I woke up screaming.
My screams, in fact, awakened me. I was supine on a four-wheeled operating table in the Recovery Room ($15.00 extra rent on my hospital bill for the hour I spent in this pain-wracked room); the burning dingle between my buttocks was packed with gauze and taped over with adhesive, and there was a long length of rubber hose dangling from my rectum, with more tape wrapped about it at the base to hold it in place. The reason for so much exterior hose (about fourteen inches), I discovered two days later, was for my surgeon’s grip: he wrapped the limber hose around his right hand and jerked it out!
The pain caused by this single cruelly calculated action was so excruciating that, if I had known how bad it would be in advance, I would never have had the operation. I also believe now, some two months later, that I would rather be dead, or still have the fourteen inches of hose dangling from my ass, instead of having it jerked out like that again. No choice could be simpler. Any person who dismisses “excruciating” as an exaggeration is either short on imagination or has well below the average of what sociologists call native American intelligence.
I will make this statement at once and at least once: if a man is past thirty, it is not worth his while to have a hemorrhoidectomy. I say this flatly and categorically because there are not, simply, enough good years remaining to any man past thirty to make the pain of this operation worth it. Moreover, any young man under thirty, especially young men who have relatively dim futures anyway, should realistically and judiciously examine his post-operative prospects before submitting his ass to the proctologist’s knife.
“Good God!” I thought, between caterwauling screams, “Why won’t someone help me?”
Spasmodically, and of its own volition, my violated, outraged anus clamped down again and again on this fucking hose, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do to prevent it. Wounded quickly, blood-raw from the razor-edged scalpel, each succeeding convulsive grip was worse than the last, until, between shuddering screams I reverted to the pleading baby-talk of a tortured, terrified child.
“Nursie! Nursie!” I cried. “Please help me! “
An old soldier, fifty years old, scarred from old war wounds, and here I was, reduced by the extremity of pain to using a word like “Nursie!” for God’s sake. In front of a woman who did not care, I abased and humiliated myself. But I did not care at the time. Nor do I believe now, perspiring as I remember, that I could have done otherwise, even if I had known then, as I know now, that I was wasting my time. My expensive surgeon, who might have helped me, was either operating on some other poor bastard or having coffee and donuts in the Resident’s Lounge.
The final two non-fiction books are less essential for the casual fan. Off the Wall (1980) is a reasonably straight work of true crime concerning the Son of Sam. Cockfighter Journal: The Story of a Shooting (1989) discusses the movie based on the novel.
High Priest of California (1953)
The Black Mass of Brother Springer (1958)
Lust Is a Woman (1958)
The Woman Chaser (1960)
The Whip Hand (1961)
Understudy for Love (1961)
No Experience Necessary (1962)
Cockfighter (1962) (slightly revised 1972)
The first run of 1950s novels was rather ragged. While there are funny passages everywhere, it is frequently hard to find a steady center and keep a consistent relationship to the meta.
Not everyone shares my opinion: in our interviews, both Ray Banks and Don Herron are unwilling to be so dismissive.
High Priest of California has self-consciously “arty” prose somewhat reminiscent of Nathaniel West. Pick-Up might be the straightest Willeford novel (some people like it best for that very reason) and has a famous ending. The Black Mass of Brother Springer is better, the mature Willeford is on the way. Wild Wives is a private eye tale that tries too hard to be strange. Lust is a Woman, Whip Hand, Understudy for Love, and No Experience Necessary have occasional good bits but are only recommended to Willeford specialists.
Willeford’s work strengthens considerably at the start of the next decade. Richard Hudson in The Woman Chaser (1960) takes the male lecture to a new level.
I had joined one of the Toastmaster clubs in San Francisco and I was in full accord with its principles. There are no ‘isms’ in Toastmasters. Each club consists of a membership of thirty determined men, in various occupations, who gather together once a week at a luncheon or dinner meeting for the purpose of learning how to speak better. It is a practical organization. The man who is unable to talk to his fellow-American today is unable to eat. The better a man can speak, the better he can eat. It isn’t what you say; it is how you say it. A simple, straightforward proposition. All of us are born with a tongue, but how many of us know how to use it effectively?
In the glove compartment of my car I carried a booklet listing all of the Toastmasters Clubs in the United States and their meeting places. It was a handy booklet to have. When I got the opportunity I dropped into a meeting, knowing that I would be welcomed as another Toastmaster in good standing. There were more than a dozen such clubs in Los Angeles; the thirty-member limit of each club and the dire need of ambitious men to make more money will increase the membership of Toastmaster’s International a thousandfold in the next decade.
My day had been a dull one, and at five o’clock I had called the Sergeant-At-Arms of a Telephone Company Toastmaster’s Club and asked him if I could attend their evening meeting. His friendly welcome chased away the cares of the day, and with my TM button on my lapel I entered the dining room of the Robert Fulton Hotel promptly at 7:30 p.m.
There were twenty members present and three guests, counting myself. After the brief invocation I was introduced to the club by the Sergeant-At-Arms, along with two aspirants for membership. Unlike many clubs, prospective Toastmasters are allowed to attend two meetings as guests before making up their minds–to join or not to join. Those who do not join sink back into the faceless mass and the chances are excellent that they will never be heard from again, at least in the competitive world of money-makers.
With the arrival of tired salmon croquettes and Lyonnaise potatoes, the table topic began. Each one of us present was allowed one full minute to express our opinions, pro or contra, on the question of admitting a larger quota of immigrants into the United States. The members of this club were all employees of the Telephone Company, secure in their jobs, and the majority of the one-minute speakers were for the admission of more immigrants. In the majority opinion, 30,000 more people a year meant 30,000 more telephone installations. At the time, as I recall, I could not see how the running away from various countries could speed the freedom of the countries left behind. A minute passes quickly, and the chairman, a sonorous-voiced classified salesman, banged the gavel for me to sit down.
Again, Charles Willeford must have acquired this voice — the Charles Willeford voice — during his army years. Later in the book, the connection to the Army is made explicit.
Bill didn’t have much hair, and he owned a well-developed paunch. His round face was unlined and closely shaved. He wore a constant smile with a fixed expression of happiness. His face, with it’s secret, knowing, covering smile, was a reflection of and on every commanding officer he had ever served. He had done their work for them, and he had received no credit, but he knew, and that was enough for him. There were hundreds like him in the Army, a not-so-secret society of non-commissioned officers who actually ran the Army year after year, watching tolerantly as the Reserve officers entered, served a couple of years, and departed in disgust with the system. As Bill once remarked when we were driving to Long Beach, “Captains come and go, but the first sergeant stays forever.”
Willeford himself was a retired Master Sergeant.
The Woman Chaser has a good plot and there are some delightful Hollywood scenes. However, it’s hard to accept the balance of what Hudson gets “right” (mostly the artistic process) and what he gets “wrong” (anything moral or ethical). In particular, Hudson’s rape of a teenage girl who has a crush on him is completely off the rails.
Willeford was proud of his next novel, Cockfighter (1962), where the narrator has taken a vow of silence.
My goal in life was that little silver coin, not quite as large as a Kennedy half dollar. On one side of the medal there is an engraved statement: Cockfighter of the Year. In the center, the year the award is given is engraved in Arabic numerals. At the bottom of the coin are three capital letters: S.C.T. These letters stand for Southern Conference Tournament.
In addition to the medal there is a cash award of one thousand dollars. In effect, the cocker who wins this award has the equivalent of a paid−up insurance policy. He can demand a minimum fee of one hundred and fifty dollars a day as a referee from any pit operator in the South, and the operator considers it an honor to pay him. To a cocker, this medal means as much as the Nobel Prize does to a scientist. If that doesn’t convey an exact meaning of the award, I can state it simpler. The recipient is the best damned cockfighter in the South, and he has the medal to prove it.
A vow of silence, however, isn’t necessary to compete for the award. That had been my own idea, and not a very bright idea either, but I was too damned stubborn to break it.
On the day Mr. Middleton picked me up in his Cadillac at Captain Mack’s Trailer Court in Belle Glade, I hadn’t said a word to anyone in two years and seven months.
Willeford did an exhaustive amount of research into the sport, and was proud that the cockfighting community thought that he must have been a cocker himself. (He wasn’t.) It’s a dark and violent book that would horrify any animal rights activist, and also supposedly a retelling of The Odyssey.
Cockfighter has remarkable qualities but I never can quite wrap my head around it. I guess I’m like one of Frank Mansfield’s lovers:
At the foot of the stairs, I retrieved my hat and guitar, and made my exit into the dawn. The sky was just beginning to turn gray. I opened the guitar case, removed the instrument, and tried to scrape off my name with my knife. It was burned in too deeply, but Bernice would be able to see that I had tried to scrape it off. Then I put the neck of the guitar on the top step, and stomped on it until it broke. After cutting the strings with my knife, I placed the broken instrument on the welcome mat.
There was an oleander bush on the left side of the porch. I tossed the guitar case into the bush. Now I could keep the fifty−dollar bill in good conscience. The guitar had been worth at least thirty dollars, and the fee for the private concert was twenty dollars. We were even. The message was obscure, perhaps, but Bernice would be able to puzzle it out eventually.
The message of Cockfighter is obscure, perhaps, but maybe I’ll be able to puzzle it out eventually.
The Difference (1971)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971)
The Shark-Infested Custard (mid-‘70s, pub. 1996)
The Difference (1971) melds Albert Camus and the traditional western. Almost a decade has gone by since his last prose publication, and Willeford’s style has become more assured. It’s harder to tell the seams between the outlandish and the real.
Willeford draws on his extensive knowledge of horses, derived from his time in the U.S. Cavalry.
The bay mare turned out to be the most miserable, as well as the ugliest, horse I had ever ridden. She didn’t know how to walk. All she did was jig, jig, jig, and that gait got mighty tiresome. What was worse, if I squeezed my legs and tugged back easily on the reins, the way a man’s supposed to do to make a horse walk or to bring one down to a halt, she’d rear straight up, going almost completely over on her back. The first time she pulled that trick, she almost lost me. I realized that it wasn’t altogether her fault. Somebody had taught her to do it, and she expected a reward every time, a nice friendly pat on the neck or a handful of oats. I cursed the cowboy who had taught her to rear, and I cursed her for learning it so well. The third time she tried it on me I dismounted, broke off a thick mesquite branch and, when she reared up the next time, brought the club down on her poll. For the next few miles we had it out; she’d rear up, and I’d club her back down. She began to get the idea that rearing was associated with a sudden whack on the poll, and she quit doing it. But she still wouldn’t walk. She was a jigger, she always had been a jigger, and it was too late now — she must have been at least eight years old — to make a walker out of her.
The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971) is Willeford’s tightest book, for the author has a specific, plump target for satire that can’t be mistaken: conceptual art.
Conceptual art needs a critic to explain the message of the artist to the public. In The Burnt Orange Heresy, the ironies are compounded, for all of Willeford’s best output is meta in nature, requiring parsing and explaining (at least in the mind of the reader).
“A critic’s supposed to speak. He welcomes questions, because his job is to explain what the artist does. The artist is untrained for this sort of thing, and all he does is weaken his position. Some painters go around the country on lecture tours today, carrying racks of slides of their work, and they’re an embarrassed, inarticulate lot. The money’s hard to turn down, I suppose, but in the end they defeat themselves and their work. A creative artist has no place on the lecture platform, and that goes for poets and novelists, as well as painters.”
That’s art critic James Figueras, in the middle of the longest male lecture in Willeford’s canon. (In a perfect moment, his girlfriend falls asleep for part of it.)
Willeford wrote hundreds of reviews including thoughtful critiques of Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Jim Tully, Franz Kafka, and Henry Miller. His master’s thesis “New Forms of Ugly,” where he coined the term “immobilized hero,” name-checks Dostoevsky, Bellow, Beckett, Kafka, Nathaniel West, Hesse, Joyce, Walker Percy, Robbe-Grillet, Himes, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, John Barth, Salinger, Thomas Wolfe, Waugh, Capote, Joseph Heller, Carson McCullers, Dalton Trumbo, Jim Tully, Camus, Michel Butor, Malcolm Lowry, Sherwood Anderson, Hamlin Garland, Erskine Caldwell, Pound, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Tom Kromer, and Horace McCoy.
However, with possible exception of a fairly impenetrable and posthumously published essay about existentialism and Jake Dover from The Difference, Willeford never explained much about his own work.
Perhaps that was a wise decision. Still, not enough people have read The Burnt Orange Heresy, and partly that is simply because people don’t know what the hell it is.
It hasn’t helped that The Burnt Orange Heresy has been packaged a straight-ahead crime novel. An easy-to-find Carroll and Graf mass market edition has a bikini-clad babe under a Florida sun on the cover. The Vintage Crime trade paperback is almost as bad, blurbed by Elmore Leonard on the front, “No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford,” and by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the back, “All that a mystery should be.” The synopsis on the back cover compares it to the Hoke Moseley series, even using the word “procedural.”
The Burnt-Orange Heresy has a murder, so at a stretch it can be classed as crime fiction, but it’s certainly not a mystery or a procedural. It’s also very funny. If you don’t know The Burnt-Orange Heresy is all a joke, it’s impossible to understand.
Here’s a better (imaginary) blurb:
A powerful art critic is a powerful force. Even though a few bodies pile up along the way, James Figueras’s perceptive analysis about reclusive legend Jacques Debierue wins glory for both in the end. This scathing and hilarious takedown of conceptual art is central to understanding the work of Charles Willeford.
Once again, Willeford makes it unusually difficult to make a clear ruling on his narrators. I’ve always thought of Figeuras as an amoral figure, but just now when re-reading, I was astonished to find him rather heroic.
The Burnt Orange Heresy could be ranked next to the circa-1971 work of John Barth, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Kurt Vonnegut. It would also be good supplementary reading for college level art appreciation courses.
(Out of deference to the novel, I have no plans to see the gleaming new movie adaptation with Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, and Donald Sutherland. New York Times film critic Glenn Kenny understands Willeford, so here’s a link to his review as a placeholder.
The correct movie to pair with The Burnt Orange Heresy is obviously Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.)
The Shark-Infested Custard (mid-’70s, pub. 1996) is another challenging masterwork. Larry Dolman, Hank Norton, Eddie Milller, and Don Luchessi are quite bright and keep busy. Although it could justifiably be called a crime novel — maybe it’s even a noir — most of the book is about dating women or working. The point of view wanders between first person and third; even the chronology is opaque.
Willeford is undoubtedly drawing on memories of all the men he knew during his twenty years of service. Men who were casually cruel but were still interesting to talk to. Men who needed to sleep with new women in order to feel manly but never gave a thought for them otherwise. Men who killed one day and set up small and successful business ventures the next.
Norton delivers a typical lecture to a woman he is trying to pick up at a party.
I lit her cigarette. She inhaled deeply, held it in, and said through closed teeth, “What’s a detail man?”
“Drug pusher. I’m a pharmaceutical salesman for Lee Laboratories, and my territory includes Key West, Palm Beach, and all of Dade County. I’m supposed to see forty doctors a week and tell them about our products, so they’ll know how to use them.”
“There’re a lot of drug companies, aren’t there?”
“Sure. And a lot of detail men, and a lot of doctors. But my job, especially for Lee Labs, is one of the best jobs in the world, if not the best. I work about five hours a week, when I work at all, and I make a decent living.”
“How can you call on forty doctors in five hours?”
“You can’t. I fake it, turning in my weekly report from the info in my files. Also I telephone from time to time — the doctors’ secretaries — to make sure the doctor hasn’t died on me since the last time I actually called on him. But I can usually make ten or fifteen personal calls in an afternoon when I want to. And if I set up a drugs display for one day in a hospital or medical building, that counts as forty calls for the week. I like my work, though, and I’m really a good salesman. I feel sorry for doctors, the poor overworked bastards, and I like to help them out.”
“Do they always let you in? Just like that?”
“Most of them do. There are three kinds of doctors, you see. It’s impossible for a doctor to read everything put out by the drug companies on every drug, but a few try. They all need a detail man to explain what a drug does, its contraindications, and so forth. So one doctor refuses to see detail men, and reads all of the literature, or tries to, himself. Another doctor never reads anything, but depends entirely on a detail man to brief him. The third kind doesn’t read anything or see any detail men either. And if you happen to get this guy for a doctor, your chances for survival are pretty dammed slim.”
Early in the book, Monte Hellman’s movie Two-Lane Blacktop is mentioned, and Warren Oates in particular is praised. This is an in-joke about the director and star of the movie adaptation of Cockfighter, but I suspect that Warren Oates’s performance in Two-Lane embodies Willeford’s brand of disconnected male.
As always, pecking order is important to Willeford. In one long scene, Norton interacts with his boss. They both have taken the Dale Carnegie course, and both know that the other is doing what they learned in Business Training. The long psychological profile Norton writes about Miller’s girlfriend is equally hilarious. The Shark-Infested Custard also includes more details about silverware services than you’ll find in any other “crime novel.”
If the reader is willing to question every sentence in this weirdly-shaped book, it will be a wonderful experience. For those that read it “straight,” it must be a real head-scratcher. It’s not surprising that Willeford couldn’t get it published in the 1970s. He told one potential buyer that The Shark-Infested Custard was in the hard-boiled tradition of James Cain and Horace McCoy, but, truly, those famous names aren’t that much help when assessing the style. The whole work only came out posthumously.
Miami Blues (1984)
New Hope For the Dead (1985)
The Way We Die Now (1988)
None of the books described so far were commercially successful upon first publication. They were reprinted only after Willeford’s late-in-life success with Miami cop Hoke Moseley. For many of Willeford’s fans, the Moseley series is what matters.
(In Willeford, Don Herron recounts how he met Willeford, who bought a round at a nearby bar after taking Herron’s San Francisco Hammett walking tour. Herron was a serious book maven but didn’t know any of the titles Willeford says he’s published…except the new Miami Blues, which rings a distant bell to Herron thanks to some buzz among crime fiction fans. This first interaction between biographer and subject sums up Willeford’s literary career in a nutshell.)
Willeford spent many years teaching a course in American mystery fiction and read the genre extensively for his own pleasure. When Willeford reviewed Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett biography, he said some interesting things about Hammett’s most famous book, The Maltese Falcon.
It reconfirms a lot of important things about American life: The business of America is business; romance is a worthwhile delusion; it’s hazardous to sleep with your partner’s wife; women who engage in serial relationships will lie to you when the truth would do them more good; existentialism is a practical philosophy for urban males to follow; and if a man develops a professional attitude towards his work, he will probably succeed where others fail.
These six “important things about American life” are nothing Hammett says directly, but are what Willeford gleans from filling in the blanks.
Willeford’s most famous book also benefits from filling in some blanks, for Miami Blues (1984) is not necessarily what it seems to be.
Broadmoor Book Review has some conventional wisdom that misses the point: “Good stuff, if a bit formulaic: Rough-around-the-edges-cop, straight laced partner, bureaucrat boss, naive-but-plucky females, sociopath bad guy and all the other stock urban crime characters mix it up on the way to a satisfying resolution.”
You cannot understand Willeford too fast; it doesn’t work that way.
Miami Blues isn’t formulaic, it is a reaction against formula. But it would have been too easy for the author to write something that was obviously a reaction against formula. Instead, the work teeters on a bizarre edge: it is at once the thing itself (a formulaic police procedural) and the rejection of the thing (a satire of formula).
Betsy Willeford reports that Charles told aspiring writers, “Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor.”
That’s a very important quote, a key to unlocking the puzzle of Willeford’s aesthetic…
…but telling the truth isn’t the whole story.
If the initial death by finger-breaking (?!) out at the airport isn’t ludicrous enough, a short time later the finger-breaker/killer orders up a whore in his downtown hotel who turns out to be the finger-broken/dead guy’s sister! This is a coincidence of absurd proportions. An experienced author isn’t being a mediocre inventor here, he’s letting us know that the plot is a joke. But the author is also crafty enough to keep the plot obvious enough to satisfy Broadmoor Book Review.
The major difference between the lead criminal Freddy Frenger, Jr. and all non-Willefordian forebears and followers is his fundamental lack of glamour.
Examples of a kind of early ’80s hot “rock and roll” crime fiction abound in books by Elmore Leonard, who must have been a big influence on Miami Blues. As with Willeford, Leonard’s male leads and antagonists don’t talk about their feelings much. But Leonard’s men are not existential, they are not all that immobilized. They lead swashbuckling lives and have horny girlfriends.
There’s not much swashbuckling to be found in Miami Blues, and all the sex is banal. “Bad girl” Susan Waggoner arouses hardly any erotic interest from anybody, not even her new boyfriend, Freddy. They go through the motions of becoming a romantic couple to assuage inchoate needs. As Willeford shows us this truth, the inchoate becomes a resonant finished statement for the observer. Not just what Willeford claimed Hammett showed us, “Romance is a worthwhile delusion,” but even further, “Romance is a inevitable delusion.”
Susan, wearing white cut-offs and a Kiss T-shirt, was eating a tuna salad sandwich and drinking a Tab when Freddy unlocked the door and came into the room. The bed had been made, the curtains were drawn back, and the room was delightfully cool.
“Why aren’t you watching TV?” Freddy said.
“I was. I did the exercises with Richard Simmons, switched over to cable, and then did aerobics for five minutes. And that was enough TV for me. I sent your pants with the little tennis rackets and your blue guayabera to the cleaners. They’ll be back by three, the boy said.”
“Good. I like that. I’ve been out getting oriented and thinking about what to do, so I rented us a little house up in Dania.”
“By the fronton?”
“No, but it’s only about eight blocks away. Maybe we can go some night. I’ve never seen any jai alai. They don’t have it in California. Not that I know of, anyway.”
“The first game you see is exciting. But after the first game it’s almost as boring as watching greyhounds.”
“We’ll go anyway. But I don’t want to talk about that right now. Let me have the rest of that Tab. It’s hotter than a sonofabitch outside. What I wanted to ask you was this-” Freddy finished the Tab. “You said your girl friends up in Okeechobee got married, right?”
“Most did, those who didn’t leave for someplace else, or just stay home and mope around. There isn’t much choice up in Okeechobee.”
“What do they do then, after they’re married, I mean?”
“Take care of the house, shop, fix dinner. Sue Ellen, who was in the eleventh grade with me, has three babies already.”
“Is that what you want? Babies?”
“Not anymore. Once I did, but not since the abortion. I’m on the pill, and I use foam besides—unless the john says he wants to go down on me. But now that we’re married, I guess I can go off the pill and quit using the foam, too.”
“No, stay on the pill. I don’t want any babies either, but if you did, I thought I might try it that way some time. Right now, I like the way we’re doing it.”
Susan blushed happily. “Would you like the other half of this tuna sandwich?”
“No. I had a western omelet for a late breakfast. What else do the married girls do up in Okeechobee?”
“Not a lot, the girls I ran around with. They don’t work because there isn’t much work there to speak of, and their husbands wouldn’t want them to, anyway. It makes a guy look bad if his wife has to work, unless they’re in business together or something and she has to help him out, sort of. They visit their mothers, shop at the K-Mart, or go roller-skating at the rink sometimes over at Clewiston. On weekends there’re barbecues and fish fries. I guess the married girls my age do the same things they did in high school, except they just go with one guy, and that’s usually the same guy they were fucking all the way through high school anyway. The best thing, though, they get away from home and their parents. They can stay up late and sleep late, too. If it hadn’t been for Marty, I probably would’ve been married, now.”
“Okay, so let’s say we’re married, which we are, even though it’s a platonic marriage. Is that what you’d like to do? Keep house, fix regular meals, go shopping? I know you’re a good cook. I liked those stuffed pork chops a lot.”
Susan smiled and looked at her wriggling toes. “I did all the cooking at home. You just wait till you taste my chuck roast, with sherry in the gravy! I make it in the Crockpot with little pearl onions, new potatoes, and chopped celery and parsley. I use just a tiny pinch of curry powder-that’s the secret to Crockpot chuck roast.”
“It sounds okay.”
“It is good, too, let me tell you.”
“I’ve never been married before.” Freddy took off his jacket and kicked off his Ballys. “I lived with a woman for about two months once. She never cooked anything or kept house or did much of anything a wife’s supposed to do. But when I came home, you see, she was someone to be there. I came back one night and found that she’d left, taking the five hundred bucks I had stashed under the carpet with her. I was going to look for her, and then I realized that I was damned lucky to get rid of her so easily. She was a junkie, so I didn’t try to find her.
“I had a Filipino boy living with me once, too, in Oakland. But he was a jealous little bastard, and he questioned me all the time. I don’t like to be questioned, you know.”
“What I’m getting at, Susie, or what I want, is a regular life. I want to go to work in the morning, or maybe at night, and come home to a clean house, a decent dinner, and a loving wife like you. I don’t want any babies. The world’s too mean to bring another little kid into it, and I’m not that irresponsible. The n–s and the Catholics don’t care, but somebody’s got to- d’you know what I mean? Do you think you could handle it?”
Susan began to cry and nod her head. “Yes, oh, yes, that’s what I’ve always wanted, too, Junior. And I’ll be a good wife to you, too. You just wait and see!”
Willeford was a seasoned college professional who once told Ed Gorman that the single most boring thing in the world was, “Grading Freshman term papers for an English composition class.” He puts himself in Miami Blues as Professor Turner.
There were thirty-five students in the class; thirty-six, counting Freddy, who took the last seat in the row by the back wall, behind Susan. There were no windows, and the walls, except for the green blackboard, were covered with cork. The city noises were shut out completely. The students, mostly Latins and blacks, were silent as they watched the teacher write “Haiku” on the green board with a piece of orange chalk. The teacher, a heavy-set and bearded man in his late forties, did not take roll; he had just waited for silence before writing on the board.
“Haiku,” he said, in a well-trained voice, “is a seventeen-syllable poem that the Japanese have been writing for several centuries. I don’t speak Japanese, but as I understand haiku, pronounced “ha–ee–koo,” much of the beauty is lost in the translation from Japanese to English.
“English isn’t a good language for rhymes. Three-quarters of the poetry written in English is unrhymed because of the paucity of rhyming words. Unhappily for you Spanish-speaking students, you have so many words ending in vowels, you have the difficulty in reverse.
“At any rate, here is a haiku in English.”
He wrote on the board:
The Miami sun
Rising in the Everglades–
Burger in a bun.
“This haiku,” he continued, “which I made up in Johnny Raffa’s bar before I came to class, is a truly rotten poem. But I assure you I had no help with it. Basho, the great Japanese poet, if he knew English and if he were still alive, would positively detest it. But he would recognize it as a haiku because it has five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Add them up and you have seventeen syllables, all you need for a haiku, and all of them concentrating on a penetrating idea.
“You’re probably thinking, those of you who wonder about things like this, why am I talking about Japanese poetry? I’ll tell you. I want you to write simple sentences—subject, verb, object. I want you to use concrete words that convey exact meanings.
“I know you Spanish-speaking students don’t know many Anglo-Saxon words, but that’s because you persist in speaking Spanish to each other outside of class instead of practicing English. Except for giving you Fs on your papers, I can’t help you much there. But when you write on your papers, pore — p-o-r-e — over your dictionaries for concrete words. When you write in English, force your reader to reach for something.”
There was a snicker at the back of the room.
“Basho wrote haikus in the seventeenth century, and they’re still being read and talked about in Japan today. There are a couple of hundred haiku magazines in Japan, and every month articles are still being written about Basho’s most famous haiku. I’ll give you the literal translation instead of a seventeen-syllable translation.
He wrote on the blackboard:
Frog jumps in.
“There you have it,” Mr. Turner said, scratching his beard with the piece of chalk. “Old pond. Frog jumps in. Water sound. What’s missing, of course, is the onomatopoeia of the water sound. But the meaning is clear enough. What does it mean?”
He looked around the room but was unsuccessful in catching anyone’s eye. The students, with sullen mouths and lowered lids, studied books and papers on their armrest desk tops.
“I can wait,” Mr. Turner said. “You know me well enough by now to know that I can wait for a volunteer for about fifteen minutes before my patience runs out. I wish I could wait longer, because while I’m waiting for volunteers I don’t have to teach.” He folded his arms.
A young man wearing cut-off jeans, a faded blue tank top, and scuffed running shoes without socks, lifted his right hand two inches above his desk top.
“You, then,” the teacher said, pointing with his chalk.
“What it means, I think,” the student began, “is that there’s an old pond of water. This frog, wanting to get into the water, comes along and jumps in. When he plops into the water he makes a sound, like a splash.”
“Very good! That’s about as literal an interpretation as you can get. But if that’s all there is to the poem, why would serious young men in Japan write papers about this poem every month in their haiku? But, thank you. At least we have the literal translation out of the way.
“Now, let’s say that Miami represents the old pond. You, or most of you, anyway, came here from somewhere else. You come to Miami, that is, and you jump into this old pond. We’ve got a million and a half people here already, so the splash you make isn’t going to make a very large sound. Or is it? It surely depends on the frog. Some of you, I’m afraid, will make a very large splash, and we’ll all hear it. Some will make a splash so faint that it won’t be heard by your next door neighbor. But at least we’re all in the same pond, and–”
There was a knock on the door. Annoyed, Mr. Turner crossed to the door and opened it. Freddy leaned forward and whispered to Susan. “That’s some pretty heavy shit he’s laying down. D’you know what he’s talking about?”
Susan shook her head.
“Us! You, your brother, and me. What’s that other word mean that he keeps talking about — ‘onomatopoeia?’”
“It’s the word for the actual sound. Like ‘splash’ when the frog jumps in.”
“Right! See what I mean?” Freddy’s eyes glittered. “You and me, Susan. We’re going to make us a big splash in this town.”
Please take a moment to ponder the ultimate surreality of a mediocre haiku lesson in the middle of a tough crime novel.
Turner has some good advice, especially, “I want you to use concrete words that convey exact meanings,” and, “Pore over your dictionaries for concrete words. When you write in English, force your reader to reach for something.” This is exactly how Willeford achieves his magic, by making us reach and reach and reach.
Of course, since this is Willeford, Turner’s male lecture is also flawed. His poem (written in bar right before class) is quite bad, but from what we can hear of it, his parsing of the famous haiku is even worse. Bashō’s pond is not like a goddamn city! Surely it is conventional to start with larger aesthetic issues like ambience, Zen, and nature when leading students into Bashō. However, Turner’s speech is a perfectly garbled message for blithe psychopath Freddy Frenger. “Glittered” is the ideal concrete word.
Miami Blues offers Willeford’s first real sympathetic lead since Pick-Up. Every reader falls for Hoke, even though he is a sexist, racist, Reagan-voting ex-soldier. We care for Hoke partly because his beat is dangerous, and Hoke is the traditional man of honor who will protect us from evil.
Hoke’s Miami is full of action and violence, the kind of excitement that pleases fans of hard boiled noir. But anyone can write that someone’s head was blown off. Willeford gives us that violence with the same kind of uneasy detachment that all decorated WW II vets share.
Like Hoke, Hoke’s partner is ex-military.
Henderson got to his feet and smiled as Hoke crossed the crowded squad room. Most of Henderson’s front teeth were reinforced with silver inlays, and his smile was a sinister grimace. Hoke and Bill had been working together for almost four years, and Hoke knew that when Henderson smiled, something horrible about human nature had been reconfirmed for his partner.
Toward the end of the book Ellita Sanchez joins Henderson and Hoke. Sanchez will replace Henderson as the second lead in the series. The two old bastards can’t take her seriously at first, but her professionalism wins them over.
The final “high noon” between Hoke and Freddy seems to be a parody of Leonard’s City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. The resolution is strikingly similar: both criminals are shot three times after a standoff taking place in the homes associated with the women who have just abandoned them. However, the emotional reactions of the cops are very different. After the shootout, Leonard’s Raymond Cruz is as casual as any Western sheriff. Hoke is deeply distraught and about to collapse.
Willeford intended Miami Blues as a standalone. When it was a hit, his agent asked for a series. At first, Willeford didn’t turn in New Hope for the Dead (1985), he turned in Grimhaven (unpublished, written 1984-85) instead.
Grimhaven is a one-of-kind act of artistic madness. Given a chance at literary stardom, Willeford’s first instinct was to go AWOL and destroy Hoke Moseley. My bootleg copy of Grimhaven was sent to me by Donald Westlake. When I thanked him and called the work “exceptional,” Don wrote back, “It is not just an exception in his oeuvre, but in the world. Those who will be knocked out by it should see it.”
If you dare to read the desolate scene where Hoke kills his daughters, here it is. (The squeamish should skip it.)
At three A.M., Hoke opened the bedroom door and looked at the sleeping girls. They had slept on top of their sleeping bags the night before, but the frigidity of the air-conditioning, which he had counted on, had driven the girls inside them tonight. Aileen had zipped her bag up all the way, but Sue Ellen had simply crawled under the top cover without pulling the zipper. Aileen’s bag was against the wall, with her head facing the bedroom door, and Sue Ellen slept beneath the closed window. Enough light came from the galley behind Hoke to make everything in the room stand out clearly.
Hoke straddled Aileen’s sleeping bag, lowered himself to his knees, and encircled the girl’s skinny throat with his hands. As he dug his thumbs deeply into her throat she made a “Gggghhh” sound. Her body became rigid then limp. He tightened his grip nevertheless, to make certain she was dead.
Sue Ellen awoke, propped herself slightly on her elbows, and looked in his direction.
“Daddy?” she said tentatively, still half-asleep.
“Lie down. Go to sleep.” Hoke said, getting up and moving toward her.
She started to sit up instead, and her right leg was free of the sleeping bag by the time Hoke reached her. He was afraid she might scream, which would waken Bobby next door, so he brought his right fist down in a clubbing motion, catching Sue Ellen at a point an inch below her ear on the bony side of her jaw. He heard her jaw snap as it broke. He reached for her throat with both both hands, but couldn’t for a long moment get a firm grip. His fingers were still numb from strangling Aileen, and when he had clubbed Sue Ellen on the jaw, he had broken the little finger on his right hand in two places. Unlike Aileen’s, Sue Ellen’s arms were free, and she clawed wildly at his eyes, making him rear back so she couldn’t reach his face with her nails. His grip tightened, however, and his thumbs pressed firmly down on her trachea. She was unable to make a sound, although for a moment or so, Hoke thought the heavy breathing he heard was coming from Sue Ellen instead of himself. Her arms dropped limply, but Hoke’s did not. Her body collapsed, but he continued to dig his thumbs into her bruised throat. Sharp pains from his broken little finger darted up his arm all the way to his armpit.
Hoke sat back, finally, breathing heavily through his mouth. When he was breathing normally again, he realized that both girls had voided. There was an acrid smell of urine and feces in the cold air, and he knew that both girls were irrevocably dead.
After his agent rejected the transgressive manuscript, Willeford tried again. New Hope For the Dead kept the daughters, but Hoke doesn’t kill them.
A familiar Quentin Tarantino quote mentions Sue Ellen and Aileen:
I don’t do neo-noir. I see Pulp Fiction as closer to modern-day crime fiction, a little closer to Charles Willeford, though I don’t know if that describes it either. What’s similar is that Willeford is doing his own thing with his own characters, creating a whole environment and a whole family. The thing that is so great is that those fucking characters become so real to you that when you read each new book and you find out what’s going on with his daughters and his old partner, they’re almost like members of your own family.
That’s a nice quote. It’s done a lot for Willeford, that quote. But it’s worth remembering that Grimhaven came first; that Hoke, as an immobilized man, strangled Sue Ellen and Aileen. Hoke’s humorous family relationships have a deeply dysfunctional background. Seen in a Grimhaven light, the moment in New Hope when Hoke is surprised by his formerly estranged daughters is chilling.
Hoke’s mind was frozen. For a moment, he had difficulty getting his thoughts together.
However, in the universe where the girls survive, Hoke has a new captive audience for his male lectures.
“That figures. Okay, now, everything’s settled. Except now I have to tell you about sex. First, though, what did your mother tell you about sex?”
“She already told us everything, Daddy,” Sue Ellen said, looking at her fingernails. “You don’t have to talk about sex.”
“She tell you about the clap, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, shit chancres?”
“Not about AIDS,” Sue Ellen admitted.
“AIDS you don’t have to worry about. That comes from anal sex. If you avoid anal sex, you won’t get AIDS, but the point is, I want you girls to avoid sex altogether. There’ll be a lot of pressure on you down here. Miami isn’t Vero Beach, you know.”
“There was pressure in Vero, too,” Sue Ellen said.
“I know, I know, but the young guys running around down here are different. They’ll tell you anything. They’ll start by asking you to feel their dong. Then the next thing you know, they’ll ask you to jerk it a few times. First thing you know they’ll talk you into giving them a blow job. Bang! You’ve got herpes or gonorrhea of the throat. So, no sex, period. Any guy who gets laid won’t ask you to marry him, either. That’s something else to remember. But I’m not unreasonable, Sue Ellen. If some guy wants to marry you, bring him around and I’ll talk to him. You’re sixteen, so you can get married with my consent, but I’ll have to check the guy out first.”
“How do you mean, check him out?”
“His father. I can check his father’s credit rating in Dun and Bradstreet. I can check the boy’s school records and find out what kind of I.Q. he has. You wouldn’t want to marry a moron, would you?”
Sue Ellen giggled.
“Then there’s his family. I’d have to see his family, find out if there’s a dwarf or something in his family. You wouldn’t want to have a baby dwarf, would you?”
“No!” Sue Ellen laughed.
“It isn’t funny, Sue Ellen. Some of these guys have rap sheets, and I can check that out. Or else the guy might be married already, and be lying to you. That’s why you shouldn’t have sex until after you’re married, you see. Because once he gets it, he won’t marry you. Meanwhile, I know you girls are normal, and you’ll have normal urges. That’s natural. But to relieve your urges, just go into the bathroom, lock the door, and masturbate. But remember this, masturbation is a private matter. Do it alone, and not to each other, and don’t ever talk about it.”
“Not even to Ellita?” Sue Ellen asked.
“Especially not to Ellita. Jesus. She’s a Cuban and a Catholic. She’d be shocked if you told her about any of this stuff I’m telling you. But VD is the worst. A dose of clap’ll make an old man out of you before you’re thirty.”
Both girls laughed.
Hoke grinned. “That’s what my old first sergeant used to tell us every payday, when I was in the army. So it won’t make an old man out of you girls, but clap’s harder on a woman than it is on a man because it can make you sterile. Got any questions?”
The girls looked at each other. Aileen smiled; Sue Ellen studied the tip of her cigarette. “Can I let the hair grow under my arms? Like Ellita?”
“Not yet. Wait until you’re eighteen. Okay? And any questions you have, ask me, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out for you. If you can’t trust your father to give you the straight goods about sex, who else have you got? Okay, run along now. I’m going to stay up here for a while. “
The Hoke books are hilarious, but they are also seriously hard boiled. On every page there is some incongruous detail about police work or Miami life that provokes a chuckle or a grimace. The combination is surely why these books are so popular.
At one point, Henderson says about a mentally ill suspect:
“The time to kick a man, Hoke, is when he’s down. You know that.”
And Hoke knocks off work early one day:
It was only 3 P.M., but he couldn’t face the idea of reading files for another hour and a half. There were times, he knew, when he could no longer look at the outside world from inside the asshole.
New Hope For the Dead is the most perfect Moseley, pristine in affect and execution. Unlike Miami Blues, we are with Moseley in every chapter, so we get an extended exploration of our unlikely hero’s inner life. The book is also a genuine murder mystery, the only one Willeford ever wrote, yet the solution to the puzzle is unlike any other.
Perhaps Willeford thought Miami Blues was a one-off parody. When no one called it a parody at the time, Willeford was suddenly stuck. His first response, the wasteland of Grimhaven, was rejected, and eventually New Hope for the Dead ended up being more of a conventional crime novel. It’s not the same kind of high octane parody driving Miami Blues. In New Hope for the Dead, the overt zaniness is dialed back a notch and Willeford fits his weirdness perfectly within the frame.
The final two books are wonderful, but Willeford has to work a bit harder to strike a balance between the conventional and the surreal.
New Hope For the Dead combined aspects of Grimhaven with a recent unpublished manuscript A Necklace of Hickeys. For Sideswipe (1987), Willeford reached much further back and cannibalized an earlier book that no one had read, No Experience Necessary, combining it with a more tempered version of the breakdown Hoke had in Grimhaven.
As with Miami Blues, the criminals of Sideswipe share alternating chapters with the cops. The crimes are lurid and surreal, yet, as Tarantino suggests, the domestic scenes with Hoke’s family unit remain especially memorable. We also learn more about Hoke’s father’s recent wife.
Frank was in his den, watching a lacrosse game on cable, and Helen was in the living room. She sat at her fruitwood desk, addressing envelopes and enclosing mimeographed letters requesting donations for the Palm Beach Center for Abused Children. She was on the last few envelopes when Hoke joined her in the living room. He poured three ounces of Chivas Regal at the bar, added two ice cubes, and gave himself a splash of soda. Helen looked over her shoulder and smiled. “I’m about finished, Hoke. Could you fix me a pink gin, please?”
“Tanqueray or Beefeater?”
“It doesn’t make any difference when you add bitters, so I’d just as soon have Gordon’s.”
Because it did make a difference, Hoke poured three ounces of Tanqueray into a crystal glass, added ice cubes, and put in a liberal sprinkling of Angostura bitters. He took a cocktail napkin from the stack and put the napkin and drink on the edge of the desk where Helen could reach it.
“Thank you.” Helen sipped her drink. “This is Tanqueray.”
“There is a difference, then.”
“I know that, but what I meant was that it didn’t make any difference to me. There, that’s the last of the list. I wanted to have these letters printed, but I was argued out of it. The committee thought if we had them mimeographed instead, the letter would be more convincing as a dire need for funds. In my opinion, mimeograph letters are tacky. I’m not sure anyone’ll read them.”
“Copiers are best. A Xeroxed letter looks like the typed original nowadays.”
“I may suggest that to the committee next time, although there’s no urgent need for funds. We only have one abused child in the program so far, and we’re sending him up to the Sheriff’s Boy’s Ranch in Kissimmee for the rest of the summer while the mother dries out in Arizona. She’s paying the tab for both ranches, the one in Kissimmee and the one in Tucson.”
“When did you get interested in abused children, Helen?”
“I’m not, really. But I thought I should serve on some kind of committee, and this is less onerous than some of the others. What I really want to get on is the Heart Fund Ball Committee, but there’s a waiting list a mile long for that one.”
Hoke’s question, “When did you get interested in abused children, Helen?” is pure Willeford. (I loved this line so much that I used it as the subtitle for the original 2012 publication of this essay.)
As the threads gather and the opposing teams finally meet, Sideswipe simplifies into a conventional gritty crime novel. When I first brought up Willeford to Donald Westlake, he immediately cited Sideswipe as having one of the genre’s best last lines.
The first scene of The Way We Die Now (1988) is excellent hardboiled material, but it is also devoid of any meta. This “cold open” (to borrow a phrase from television) could be from the pen of Elmore Leonard or another contemporary crime writer. According to Herron, Willeford dictated it last, in near-mortal pain, at the request of his publisher, who thought the violent climax about two-thirds through the book needed a bit more context. The cold open is fine, but Willeford is also knuckling under. An old soldier of the weird is finally doing what he’s supposed to do.
After the cold open, there are no more chapters without Hoke, so structurally The Way We Die Now is closer to New Hope for the Dead than Miami Blues or Sideswipe. But this final Moseley is far more aggressive and violent than New Hope for the Dead; indeed, this is some of the toughest stuff Willeford ever wrote. Hoke gets sent into the battleground of the criminal class without a badge or gun and barely survives. Surveying the wreckage, Willeford includes one astonishing sentence:
Both these deaths could have been avoided, Hoke reflected, if Brownley had let him keep his pistol. If he had only had his weapon, both these men — bastards that they were — would still be alive. Both deaths were justified, of course. He had had to kill the Mexican after he blinded him; blind, the man wouldn’t have been able to find any work.
Our hero says he had to kill an criminal because the dead guy wouldn’t have found work as a blind man? Try to imagine that rationalization coming from any other tough cop besides Hoke Moseley.
After giving Hoke a mental breakdown in Sideswipe, Willeford conjures all manner of endurance tests for our hero in The Way We Die Now. Hoke’s lonely trek draws on Willeford’s young years as a hobo.
At the book’s conclusion, Hoke is abandoned by his partner Ellita in notably outrageous circumstances, although a feminist reading might argue that Hoke had it coming. Hoke’s emasculation allows a smooth set-up for the final sentence of The Way We Die Now. In standard immobilized man fashion, Hoke has pushed all his pain inside him, unwilling to express any emotion in public, so his daughter breaks down in tears, telling Hoke she is crying, “Because you can’t!”
“Because you can’t!” = end of book. Done. Done for good.
The cover of the mass market Ballantine paperback proclaims The Way We Die Now as “A Hoke Moseley Detective Thriller.” That final scene, with a daughter telling our hero she is crying, “Because you can’t!” wouldn’t work for most Detective Thrillers, but it’s a perfect final flourish from Charles Willeford, who died of a heart attack at age 69 shortly after eating an extra large pepperoni pizza, more or simultaneously with the initial hardback release of The Way We Die Now in 1988.
The Machine in Ward Eleven (1963)
Writing and Other Blood Sports (2000)
The Second Half of the Double Feature (2003)
In general, Willeford’s short fiction is less important, although a few things really land just right.
The Machine in Ward Eleven (1963) was originally marketed as a science fiction novel, but in reality the book collects six unconnected and mostly genre-less short stories of varying quality.
“The Machine in Ward Eleven.” An electroshock therapy fantasia originally published in Playboy (the one time Willeford placed something there). Willeford himself had electroshock therapy in the early Fifties for depression.
“Selected Incidents.” Parallel to The Woman Chaser.
“A Letter to A.A. (Almost Anybody).” A banal Alcoholics Anonymous fantasia.
“Jake’s Journal.” A warm-up for Something About a Soldier.
“Just Like on Television.” The best of the set, a hilarious transcription of a police interrogation.
“The Alectryomancer.” A Roald Dahl-type of tale vaguely connected to Cockfighter.
The best things in the posthumous anthologies are more essential than The Machine in Ward Eleven, although there isn’t always enough context provided to make sense of the work.
Writing and Other Blood Sports (2000) focuses on the literary life. Most of the collection (produced and edited by Dennis McMillan) seems to be non-satirical. “A Matter of Dedication” is an obvious exception, this is an enjoyable fictional piece of satire. “Newsboy” is also outrageous, a complex supposition about why Willeford was never reviewed by the LA Times. Willeford’s impenetrable master’s thesis “New Forms of Ugly” is here, as is an alternate version of the “Hats” section from I Was Looking for a Street. The rest of Writing and Other Blood Sports is straight-up literary criticism:
“Jim Tully: Holistic Barbarian.” Tully is getting more of his due these days, but when Willeford wrote about him he was almost forgotten. According to Herron, Willeford even considered writing a Tully biography. The way Willeford talks about Tully recalls Westlake writing about Peter Rabe: masters humbly acknowledging important teachers.
“Diane Johnson’s Hammett.” The essential first paragraph has already been quoted above.
“Coda.” Should accompany I Was Looking For a Street.
“Fred Shaw Obituary.” A generous and beautiful tribute to an important local colleague. Shaw’s appreciation of Willeford, “The Burnt-Orange Heretic,” is also collected in this volume.
Crime enthusiasts will want to read Willeford’s reviews and obituaries of John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Fredric Brown, William McGivern, and Chester Himes. In some cases the criticism isn’t that deep — his take on Night of the Jabberwocky lasts only a few sentences, and mostly recaps the plot — but it is interesting to know the breadth of his reading. Willeford takes all this classic crime fiction at face value. Willeford mastered the fake-out for his own work, but clearly didn’t require that kind of sophistication from others when simply enjoying a good yarn.
The Second Half of the Double Feature (2003) throws important work together in a senseless fashion. This anthology deserves a second edition, edited by someone who understands the canon.
To begin with, the paperback and hardback contents are different. The hardback has the full reprint of Proletarian Laughter, including the seven essential “Schematics.” The rest of the book is most of the McMillan anthology Everybody’s Metamorphosis, plus several previously unpublished pieces from Betsy Willeford’s private collection.
There are no credits, sources, or publication history given for anything in the anthology. Even the charming couplet used as an epitaph, “To lose Willeford/We can ill afford” isn’t given an attribution; you have to read Herron to find out it’s from old bunky Elmer Canavin. That tired Elmore Leonard line, “No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford,” is once again on the cover along with pictures of a sexy muscle car and Florida palm trees.
All the stories are listed as fiction, which isn’t true. Certainly “One Hero to a War” must be the memoir about Hank Brittan refused by the Army Times in 1951 (discussed briefly by Herron). It’s a wonderful tale of occupied Japan that ranks with anything from Something About A Soldier.
Other notable selections requiring editorial comment:
“The First Five In Line.” One of the bigger pieces, a fragment of a projected novel, somewhat in a Harlan Ellison mode, foreshadowing reality TV.
“The Condemmed” is an early version of the hapless Igorot story crucial to Something About a Soldier.
“Saturday Night Special” is the first section of The Shark-Infested Custard.
If Willeford was indeed a crime writer, at last we have proof, with a series of humorous shorts that could have been published in an old mystery magazine by Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock. I suspect they were all written in the early 1960’s, and join that era’s “Just Like on Television” from The Machine In Ward Eleven.
“The Pop-Off Caper” is like Roald Dahl or Jack Ritchie.
“Give the Man a Cigar.” A trivial little number about setting up an assasination.
“Citizen’s Arrest.” Funny shoplifting incident in a department store. This one is impossible to guess as Willeford. Again, I think of Jack Ritchie.
“Some Lucky License” is the best crime short. It concerns a psychopathic cop and has a good twist ending.
“The Laughing Machine.” Belongs in The Machine in Ward Eleven, with a criminal and an unusual box of tricks.
More important than the crime shorts are several “immobilized man” studies:
“The Old Man at the Bridge.” Brilliant little exegesis on manhood.
“Warren and Lee.” A proposed college will be devoted to studying the Kennedy assassination. Classic Willeford! This one should be better known.
“The Listener.” Almost science fiction, and quite successful.
“The Gardner and the Princess.” Almost a first-person Hoke Moseley story.
“An Actor Prepares.” Being an artist is an important thing. Right? Absolutely.
“To a Nephew in College” used to be hosted on the McMillan site. After reading and enjoying the Moseley books on a superficial level, it was this little taste of surreal perfection that made me go out and read the rest of Charles Willeford, and makes for an appropriate coda for this overview…
To a Nephew in College
I am enclosing this letter with the book I have sent you. The book will come as a surprise, I know, not merely because it is The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka, but because it is from me, an old uncle you haven’t heard from in five years.
But threads of conscience have been bothering me since your mother wrote three weeks ago and informed me that you were barely hanging on to a “D” average. That doesn’t bother me too much; a “D” average means that you have a great many friends, but what does make me feel remorseful is that I have neglected you completely for so many years. Of course, I thought of you a year ago when your mother told me of your decision to attend an Ivy League school instead of coasting through one of our fine Florida universities, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t thought of you since. I am trying to make up for it now with some sage, avuncular advice.
Examine the book. Observe how slim it is, how easy to read. It is set in ten-point type, the way all books should be printed. Although this edition was printed in 1946, and is not a first edition, it is worth two dollars more now than it was then. The only flaw is a small spot on Page 67. Because this is a very sad part of the story –where an apple has pierced Gregor’s back — you may think this blemish was caused by a tear falling onto the page. Such is not the case; it is a drop of gin from an overflowing martini.
There is a purpose in my sending you The Metamorphosis, although you might think that it is pointless at this stage; but as Kafka said, “We must break the frozen sea within us.”
You are now in your sophomore year and it is time you became an expert in something. Inasmuch as you are not an athlete, and obviously not a scholar, I am recommending to you, out of my knowledge gained by 24 years in public relations, that you become an expert on Franz Kafka.
I offer you this advice with the same sincerity I give $10,000 retainers. To get by in this world, and to have the sharpened edge on his fellow men that means the difference between mediocrity and success, a man must be expert in at least one thing. Kafka may not sustain you throughout your entire life, but an extensive knowledge of his works will bring your average in college up to a “C” or possibly a “B” before you graduate into the Kafkaesque world. No teacher would dare give a “D” to a Kafka scholar.
Not only is it a simple matter to become an expert on Kafka, it is inexpensive. All of Kafka’s books are in English now, and all of them are available in handsome, paperback editions. Recently, The Basic Kafka was published. It is basic, but not enough: you also need The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, The Diaries, and The Complete Stories. There are also three volumes of letters, but I advise you to save these for graduate school, when you must begin work on an M.B.A. Today, you can obtain this entire list for less than thirty dollars. Now let me impress you: With this rack of books purchased and in plain sight in your dormitory room at college, you do not even have to open a single one of them to obtain a “C” average by the end of the year!
Such is the quiet power of Franz Kafka in an academic setting. The mere fact that you have these books in your room will spread to every corner of the campus. The setting, however, is still incomplete. There is a scene in The Trial where K., the protagonist, buys three heathscapes from Titorelli, the court painter. It isn’t possible for you to go right out and buy three heathscapes for your room, but for three dollars apiece you can get one of the fine arts students at school to paint you three of them. If you know a female art student you can probably get them done for nothing. Unfortunately, none of the do-it-yourself painting kits feature heathscapes. Heathscapes are quite depressing; two gnarled trees in the foreground, a patch of dirty gray-green grass, and a sun at its nadir. Three of these paintings, exactly alike, hanging in a row in your room, will speed your reputation as a Kafka expert. They will also serve to remind you how bleak your prospects will be if you get bounced out of college.
Next you must read all of Kafka’s books. This will take time, but you have three more years to go in college, and the short list will do. After reading The Metamorphosis, read The Trial and then The Castle. Most readers give up halfway through The Castle, so when you finish it you will be a front runner. Many Kafka experts specialize by reading only one book over and over again, but this is the cowardly way, and not for you.
Always carry a Kafka book with you from class to class. By reading a page at a time you will eventually get through them all.
As soon as you have read at least three books, write an article on some fragment of Kafka’s works and have it published in the school magazine. At this early stage I know it sounds difficult even to think about writing an article on a man you haven’t read yet, but Kafka experts have to write about him. In fact, after reading his books, you won’t be able to prevent yourself from writing about Kafka.
To get started, choose any phrase that interests you and explain it as well as you can, giving it your own interpretation. Your interpretation will be valid, and will not brook contradiction. Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” interested me at one time and I wrote seven different interpretations for my own elucidation. Every one of them was valid.
You won’t have to bribe the editor of your college magazine to publish your article; he will be delighted to get it. Everything written about Kafka is eventually published somewhere. Even if I were to send a copy of this letter to a newspaper it would be published immediately.
After the publication of your article you will be invited to join the college literary societies. Join them, by all means, but do not take an active part in their activities. This calls for some preparation, however. It will be necessary for you to memorize several quotations from Kafka’s works. To avoid being elected to any office a good quotation is, “One must not cheat anyone, not even the world of its victory.” Or you could refuse just as gracefully by saying, “Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.”
It will be better for your studies if you do not join any of the fraternities. To turn down the many requests you will receive after your article appears, quote: “What is gayer than believing in a household god?” You will, of course, lose some friends this way, but you will have ample time for your studies. Kafka has quotations to fit every situation; however, they must be delivered dead-pan to obtain maximum effectiveness. When you reach your senior year it will be best to quote Kafka in German… but I’m getting too far ahead for you, I’m afraid.
Your work is cut out for you, Wesley, but you will never regret the effort. As Kafka stated in In the Penal Colony, “Up till now a few things still had to be set by hand, but from this moment it works all by itself.”
(go on to part two, Interview with Don Herron)