I Was Looking for Charles Willeford:
Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, James Lee Burke, and James Crumley all blurbed Charles Willeford. Quentin Tarantino said Willeford influenced Pulp Fiction. The fancy Library of America collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s has Willeford’s Pick-Up alongside classic works by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.
That’s all nice praise, but none of it helps clarify that Willeford is a writer who uses genre conventions only as a means to an end. Even the books featuring Miami cop Hoke Moseley aren’t really conventional thrillers. It may make commercial sense for them to be marketed as such, but that branding ultimately undercuts the author’s larger agenda.
In an effort to unlock every mystery of Willeford interpretation, I’ve interviewed the two deepest Willeford readers I know: Don Herron and Ray Banks. This is not a perfect trilogy: between the two interviews and this essay, some ground is covered twice or even thrice. Apologies if anyone gets impatient, but it may be valuable for some more subtle points to be restated. Don, Ray, and I are mostly on the same page, but many of Willeford’s more casual fans (and certainly his publishers) still need to see the big picture.
For this survey, I’ve simplified the complex bibliography into five categories: MEMOIR, EARLY NOVELS, LATER NOVELS, HOKE MOSELEY, and SHORT PIECES.
Proletarian Laughter (1948)
A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided (1977)
Something About a Soldier (1986)
I Was Looking for a Street (1988)
Cockfighter Journal: The Story of a Shooting (1989)
In a slight “Coda” found in the posthumous collection Writing And Other Blood Sports, Willeford says:
Writers, after they become writers, lead dull, uninteresting lives. On the other hand, writers, before they become writers, have usually had full, if not exciting, lives.
The very first book Willeford published, Proletarian Laughter (1948), has seven short and astonishingly brutal “Schematics” about World War II. In his essential biography, Willeford, Don Herron writes:
Nothing says any of the incidents recorded in Willeford’s “Schematics” are true. But if you read a little about WWII, or any war, you’d have to be someone Willeford uncategorically described as not knowing his ass from a hot brick to believe that these episodes, or similar episodes, did not occur.
Those that know mature Willeford will easily recognize the nascent voice 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.
“Schematic Number 6” showcases Willeford’s own leadership.
I was in command of Task Force Birdbrain. It consisted of one tank with a 105 Howitzer, two tanks with 75’s and one squad of Armored Infantry, with their half track.
We were to provide flank protection for the division and we were deployed in a little town, at the edge, facing a long flat plain. It was early morning and the sun was just getting warm. We were fixing coffee all over the place because it was a little chilly and besides Nescafe isn’t bad at all.
A soldier told me to look across the plain and I did. I saw far in the distance a column coming toward us on the little dirt trail that led across the plain. I began to worry. I didn’t know how many were coming or whether they were Germans or what the hell they were. I got my field glasses. They were Germans and most of them had white flags. I felt a lot better.
They kept on coming in a column of fours. Twelve hundred, a thousand yards away I gave the men the order to get ready, and to knock off making coffee, because I didn’t trust the Germans. At five hundred yards I gave the order to fire. We knocked the hell out of those Germans. We killed them all. There were a lot who were just wounded and I had to send the Infantrymen out to shoot them through the head.
Everybody was all excited about killing all those Germans. As we started to make our coffee again, our faces were flushed and we all felt good. It was a great deal like, like after a winning football game.
The 1951 fragment “One Hero to A War” (collected in the posthumous The Second Half of the Double Feature) seems to confirm “Schematic Number 6.”
I had just given up — which I realized many years later — the best job in the entire world, the first sergeancy of Company A, 19th Infantry Regiment… A rifle company top-kick, with anywhere from 150 to 265 men under his direct, immediate control, has more status, more prestige, and more raw power than the President of the United States.
“Raw power”—like the power to kill a field of German soldiers trying to surrender (probably) before returning to morning coffee.
If the “Schematics” are true, they are the only examples of Willeford writing about his battle experiences explicitly. But those experiences would inform his whole oeuvre, especially when one of his characters takes a life. A paragraph from The Shark-Infested Custard argues something that surely any veteran would understand:
This murder of Wright, as necessary as it was, and I would always remind myself that it was necessary, and not a gratuitous act, had changed me forever. To kill a man, whether in anger or in cold blood, is the turning point in the life of an American male. It made me finally a member of the lousy, rotten club, a club I hadn’t wanted to join, hadn’t applied for, but had joined anyway, the way you accept an unsolicited credit card sent to you through the mail and place it in your wallet.
Given the title, one would expect that Something About a Soldier (1986) might be a tell-all about a bloody war, but no, it only covers Willeford’s teenage years when he joined the Army to escape the Depression. There are amusing and occasionally harrowing stories about hierarchy, cooking, whoring, driving, flying, sailing, horseback riding, and horseshoeing—but there’s nothing about battle.
At the end of the book, 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 early on that it was almost a contradiction. Both Proletarian Laughter and Something About a Soldier begin with a poem written during his first enlistment.
The Trooper Died,
And by his side,
They laid a wreath.
He tried to get the button
in the sheath.
Eventually it’s revealed that this poem is about an attempt to reach into a horse’s penis and clean out a blockage! (Presumably the trooper died when the horse kicked him in the head.)
It’s not surprising that a would-be poet or novelist would hasten to leave the military after two years of service. From Something About a Soldier:
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.
In that exact moment I decided to get out of the Army.
There was no hope for Willeford, though. In the next scene, civilian life during the Depression proves to be so hard that re-enlisting becomes mandatory.
“What are you doing down here on Skid Row, Willie? Did your old man finally kick you out?”
“No, I’m still living at home. I’ve got a job down here in a winery. It’s just a temporary job, siphoning wine into one-gallon jugs, but I’m getting two bits an hour. You want to help me? For every gallon you siphon, you can take a mouthful for yourself. I do.”
I helped Wille, and both of us got drunk. I was siphoning zinfandel and he was siphoning burgundy. When we started giggling and laughing and began to miss the jugs with the hose, the owner fired Willie and threw us both out. We had been working in the back for more than two hours but the owner refused to give Willie the fifty cents he had coming, complaining that we had drunk twice that much in wine. It wasn’t true, not when wine was only fifty cents a gallon, but we had put away a lot of it.
It had rained while we were in the winery, and L.A. is never ready for rain. The drains are inadequate, and the streets become flooded in minutes. The merchants along the street keep two-by-fours in their shops for these flooding rains, and put them out on the curbs to the street so people can come into their stores without getting their ankles soaked. The stream running along the gutter was a torrent. Willie and I were laughing about his dismissal, and I said that perhaps now he would be blacklisted from all the L.A. wineries as well as the grocery stores. He thought this was a funny remark.
About this time a one-legged man was coming down the sidewalk, making good time in the rain, using only one crutch. As he came abreast of us, Willie, for no reason that I know of, kicked the crutch out from under the guy’s arm, and it landed in the gutter. The rushing water picked it up, and it sailed down the gutter like a speedboat. The one-legged guy hopped after it, cursing us and shaking his fist as he hopped along. I know this isn’t funny (it’s terrible), but we laughed so hard we got weak. Three Mexicans who had witnessed the incident came over to where we were standing. I was holding myself up with one arm around a telephone pole and clutching my sore stomach with my other hand. Two Mexicans grabbed Willie from each side, and the third Mexican hit Willie in the mouth. Willie’s mouth began to bleed, and I jumped onto the back of the nearest Mexican, which brought us both down to the sidewalk. While I was on top of this guy, and punching him in the neck, one of the other Mexicans kicked me in the ribs. Willie, in the meantime, had kneed the third guy in the balls, so he was down too, howling as if his ass had been turpentined.
A white Ford stopped at the curb. A cop in civilian clothes got out, flashing his badge. The activity stopped. The Mexican who wasn’t hurt told the cop that we had kicked a one-legged man’s crutch out from under him. The cop told the Mexicans to get lost. They left, two of them supporting the guy Willie had kneed in the balls. The detective told us to get into the back seat. We got in back, sobered a little, and Willie wiped his bleeding mouth with a handkerchief. The detective drove over to Figueroa and Ninth Street and parked at the curb. He turned around and said:
“East Fifth is my beat, and I’m down there every day. If I see either one of you on Skid Row again, you’re going to Lincoln Heights on a vag charge. And that means three days in the slammer, twenty-seven days suspended. You even been to Lincoln Heights before?”
“No, sir,” I said. Willie shook his head.
“I guarantee you won’t like it. So as of now, both of you guys are washed up on Skid Row! D’you understand me?”
We nodded and got out of the car. The cop was a big man, and looked as tough as he talked. I was completely sober now. I noticed that the sleeves of my suit jacket were torn loose at the seams under the arms. But my mind was bemused by what the cop had said.
Jesus Christ! I was only nineteen years old and I was washed up on Skid Row!
Hell, from Skid Row, there was no place lower to go. The absurdity of it hit me, and I started to laugh again. Willie didn’t laugh with me, but he sat beside me. He fingered his teeth so see if they were all there. They were, but his front teeth were a little loose.
“You lost your hat,” he said.
I felt my head; the fedora was gone. “I can’t go back for it, either, because I’m washed up on Skid Row.”
“Why did you kick that guy’s crutch out from under him?”
“Why did it rain? Why did it stop?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Everything,” he said. “Everything.”
We sat there for a long time, smoking my Chesterfields, not talking, thinking our own thoughts. Then Willie got up, brushed off the seat of his pants, and started walking up Figueroa toward Eighth Street. I watched him go, but he didn’t turn around and wave, and I didn’t tell him goodbye.
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.
But, as the Skid Row excerpt illustrates, it wasn’t that much easier to remain emotionally vulnerable in civilian life, either. Willeford invented the phrase “immobilized man” to describe the physically active yet emotionally stunted male.
Communicating the feelings of emotionally stunted men would become Willeford’s life work. It was a hard and probably even thankless job. Earlier in Something About a Soldier Willeford and another buddy roar with laughter at someone even more hapless than a one-legged man: 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).
“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 unintentionally perceptive 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. 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. This 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 undoubtedly also 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.
The scenes with Private Willeford and the ladies of the Philippines are hilarious, yet touched with sad truth. Perhaps this truth is only for men, but I suspect women who enjoy Miller and Charles Bukowski won’t have a problem with Willeford, either. At any rate, I understood myself a little better after reading Something About a Soldier. Not because of the stuff about whores (although that didn’t hurt any), but because of the gradual explication of why we do all the dumb stuff we do. Men surge with a life, we have physical force that is hard to tame, and so what do we do? We want to eat, we want to get ahead, we want sex, we may have to kill… but we certainly don’t want to explain our feelings to anybody along the way.
Although published second, I Was Looking for a Street (1988) covers even earlier ground: Willeford had some sad 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. Sadly, his mother dies, the Depression looms, and Willeford hits the road.
Perhaps Something About a Soldier has more impact overall, but I Was Looking For a Street has a superb central section ideal for introducing Willeford to a newbie. Read this aloud.
I’ve been looking at the hats in my closet. My favorite is the insouciant straw Homburg I purchased in a super-stud hat shop in Atlanta. I have only worn it twice in Miami; people down here look at you funny when you wear anything that hints at formality.
In Miami, people don’t understand hats. Hats are for moderate or colder climates. A few years ago I was teaching a class on the contemporary world novel, and I was discussing Samuel Beckett’s trilogy, Malone Dies, Molloy, and The Unnameable. I did a fifty-minute hour on Beckett’s hats, and what they mean to him. Beckett truly understands hats, as well as he does pencil stubs, canes, crutches, bikes, and other neat objects that a man can use in self-defense. I was trying to get this business of hats over to this group of college students. But I never did. None of the members of the class wore a hat. Black students almost always wear some kind of hat even in class, but white college students, male or female, rarely wear hats in Miami. But black students, who understand hats very well, seldom, if ever, take college courses in the contemporary world novel. Black students prefer math, chemistry, and physical education courses. The only courses blacks hate worse than English are philosophy courses.
But blacks know a lot about hats.
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’s up to a rarifed kind of artist to discover the right place to explore these complex emotions. “Nothing is inchoate.” Willeford goes the long way around to parse his desensitizing experiences, throwing up satire, fancy talk, and endless quotidian details. The answers are there, especially if the reader is willing to work on finding them.
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 two other memoirs are exceptionally scarce. 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. It’s a surprise the whole book hasn’t been republished by now: not only has Jonathan Lethem included A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided (along with Cockfighter) on his list of top ten books, but the first nine pages formerly hosted on the Dennis McMillan website have been stunning Internet surfers for at least a decade.
Lawrence Block wrote about meeting Willeford and finding the McMillan excerpt for Mystery Scene.
…Charles talked at some length about a book he’d written and self–published eight years previously. It was called A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, and it clearly concerned a subject about which Charles felt strongly; indeed, he’d written and published it as a service to his fellow man, recounting his own experience in an effort to disabuse the reader of the notion that surgery of this sort could possibly be a Good Idea.
“I’ll send you a copy,” he said.
He never did. It’s not impossible that I showed a lack of enthusiasm at the prospect, and this led him to drop the notion. It’s also possible that it slipped his mind. So I never did have a look at the book — until a few minutes ago, when I Googled my way to Dennis’s website, where I found the first few thousand words of the book…
…I certainly wish I’d accepted Charles’s offer with more enthusiasm, and in retrospect it’s hard to imagine why I didn’t. What did I think I’d get from Willeford? Something dry and clinical? Something impersonal?
The McMillan site is now defunct, but I’ve always kept those first nine pages of A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided on file. Here’s most of that excerpt once again.
In hospital language a patient does not urinate, micturate, pee, piss, or take a leak. He voids. Or, as in my case, he is unable to void.
Hospital jargon is mid-Victorian. My hemorrhoids were not chopped out, hacked away, or operated upon. Instead, my asshole was dilated and debrided. There is no sex talk in a hospital either. Sex organs, male and female, when they are mentioned at all, are discussed formally, as elimination tools; nor is there, apparently, any distinction made between toilets for men and women. Whoever gets inside first has possession, and then there are no locks on the doors. If the doors were labeled, one suspects they would be called “Necessary Rooms,” the euphemism for the toilets of our Gilded Age.
Several years ago, before I ever thought of entering a hospital, a friend told me that a nurse’s aide would give a man a slow handjob for five bucks. Unsurprised at the time, I filed the information away, thinking I might be able to use it in a novel some day. I have been sorry since that I failed to press my friend for details. On the disinterested outside, I had no reason to disbelieve him. But on the inside, watching these harried, grimly smiling nurse’s aides – probably the lowest I.Q. occupational group of employees in the nation – rushing about inefficiently, but earning every cent of their $2.40 an hour, I wondered vaguely how my friend had gone about getting his slow handjob. He would have had to draw them a picture. However, discounting the denseness of the nurse’s aides’ understanding, the lack of privacy, the hospital stench and the permeating reek of indignant death – these factors in combination – drove all thoughts of and about sex from my mind during the two weeks of my stay.
My friend, I believe, now, lied to me. On the morning they brought the old man into the four-bed ward to die, I was trying to void, straining slightly at irregular intervals, right hand holding my limp cock, my left holding the clammy metal “duck” beneath a covering sheet. And at ten a.m., when they brought the old man in to die, I had been engaged in this heroic project for about twelve hours. Three packs of cigarettes, six minutes for each three-cent cigarette, had gone up in smoke, and the pressure on my bladder was intolerable. Any moment I expected the distended membrane to burst inside me like a wickedly pricked balloon which, in turn, would bloat me terribly with uremic poisoning, sudden death, and a happy release at last from suffering. Such was my fervent hope. A filled bladder can, or at least has been known to, burst after only eight swollen hours. At the twelve-hour mark, I knew that I was literally tolerating the intolerable.
Placed in an intolerable situation a man amplifies every advantage, no matter how slight, searching his mind for any ideas that he can undredge to persuade himself that his predicament could be worse. For example, I had the four-bed ward to myself, and because the other three beds had been empty all night I had been able to whimper and sob noisily, and, for a lovely half-hour, shed some sincere tears over my plight without disturbing anyone or being sneered at by some bedridden stoical sonofabitch whose pain might conceivably be worse than my own. I did not believe then, nor do I now, that there could possibly be any pain worse than mine was at the time, except, perhaps, for another patient awaking immediately after a similar operation.
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.
Two other post-operative patients shared the small Recovery Room with me. They were not as persistent or as insistent as I was in their demands for help but they were by no means suffering in silence. One of them groaned gruffly at irregular intervals, and the other, a Cuban or Puerto Rican, reiterated the Spanish equivalent of our deep-throated Anglo-Saxon “Oh’s!” – “Aie!” – “Aie! ” – “Aie! ” My Protestant bawl of pain, beginning with a long rattling “Ohhhhh” brought up from the diaphragm, is more satisfying than the quick-lipped two syllabled “Aie!” The latter, a broad “a” followed by the “ie” as a diphthong, sounds like one syllable to the uninitiated, but such is not the case. No matter how great the Latin’s pain, there is always a definite glottal segue from the “Ahh” to “ee.” Later on in the night I tried a few “Aie’s” myself, but they sounded insincere, probably because the exclamation is made with the mouth and the lips instead of coming from the heart. I soon returned to the equally useless, but somehow richer, Anglo-Saxon “Ohhh!”
When the Recovery Room nurse finally got around to paying some attention to me she told me to shut up because I was disturbing the other patients. Keeping my eyes squeezed tight against the overhead light and the blinding pain, I rolled my head back and forth on the hard pillow. Perhaps she was busy doing things to and for the other patients, but she did nothing for me. A few minutes later she telephoned someone, telling whoever it was that she was snowed under in the Recovery Room and needed some assistance. Not long thereafter someone, perhaps the same nurse, shot a needle into my right tricep.
Almost immediately I got some relief.
The spasms were just as bad as before but they were now spaced about a minute apart, and the breather was long enough for me to quit hollering and to brace myself for the next involuntary clamp-down on the hose. That torturing clutch, however, when it came, was still bad enough to goose a yell out of me. But I no longer begged and wept for help.
For the rest of the day and well into the night the intervals between convulsive embraces lengthened. By the following morning the time-span between them was so long (a half-hour or more), and such an unhappy surprise when they came, that I would let out an astonished yelp each time, like a sleeping dog inadvertently stomped on in the dark.
The last book-length memoir is Cockfighter Journal. I’ve looked at Don Herron’s copy and decided I didn’t need to spend the big bucks to get my own, especially since I don’t really appreciate Cockfighter in the first place. But I don’t doubt it has more insights into Willeford’s complex character.
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)
The first run of Fifties novels was rather ragged. While there are funny passages everywhere in these books, it is hard to find a steady center and keep a consistent relationship to the meta. Not everyone shares my opinion, however: in our interviews, Ray Banks and Don Herron are unwilling to be so dismissive.
The High Priest of California, Pick-Up, and The Black Mass of Brother Springer have been readily available since Willeford finally broke through in the mid-Eighties. None of them are crime, pulp, or noir books, though—even if they were published as paperback originals. They are surreal modern novels with occasional bursts of violence.
Many people like the straight-ahead, non-humorous Pick-Up, especially those who don’t really “get” his other work. The ending is justifiably famous, and Pick-Up may even be an important Civil Rights novel.
More to my taste are High Priest and The Black Mass of Brother Springer—they have some great male lectures. However, I’m impatient with the conclusion of both books. Willeford said the immobilized man wants to leave a woman as soon as he’s slept with her, but in these books that simple idea plays as a cliché. Perhaps, as Ray Banks suggests in his interview, it’s something that would have been more shocking in the Fifties.
These days you can easily get the once rare Wild Wives, which is an honest-to-god private eye tale. It’s got an amazing ending but I doubt I’ll read it again; it tries too hard to be strange. I’m not sure if Whip Hand, Understudy for Love, and No Experience Necessary are really canon or not. Read Don Herron’s biography for more infomation on the ups and downs of those years. A shorter but still helpful article, Collecting Charles Willeford, is available on Don’s site.
Many other readers have found more in Fifties-era Willeford novels than I have, and I certainly don’t mean to discourage investigation of those works. But for me, 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.
As I’ve suggested before, Charles Willeford must have acquired this voice—the Charles Willeford voice—during his army years. Later in the book, Hudson himself makes the connection to the Army explicit. (Remember that Willeford himself was a retired Master Sergeant!)
Anytime an employer hires an ex-serviceman who has completed eight to ten years of service in any branch of the Armed Forces, and has quit for one reason or another, the employer is making a mistake. The new employee will be too independent, for one thing, and sooner or later the man will reenlist to complete his twenty years of service for retirement. While it is perfectly reasonable to hire a man who has completed only one enlistment, in most instances, the man who has done two hitches or more is a bad bet for any employer. He has too much time in the service to really give it up, and ten times out of ten he will return to the safe warm womb of service life. No employer in the United States today can offer the deal that the Armed Forces offers. At the completion of twenty years of active duty a Master Sergeant or Navy Chief can retire with a pension of $156 a month for the rest of his natural life. To meet this retirement plan a civilian employer would have to put approximately $5,000 a year into a trust fund for every one of his employees. Times are not that good!
However, any employer who fails to hire a retired Master Sergeant or Navy Chief who has completed the required twenty years is making a grave mistake. I mean retired enlisted men, of course. A retired officer is a different matter. Within five minutes a retired officer will attempt to tell you how to run your business. The fact that he doesn’t know what he is talking about doesn’t deter him at all; he believes he knows all there is to know about management. For some reason, no American male ever quite gets over having been an officer.
But a retired Master Sergeant is an uncut jewel, and I was lucky enough to hire one. I liked Bill Harris from the moment he stepped into my office. For two weeks I had run a carefully worded advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, and as a consequence I had interviewed and dismissed some mighty weird cats. Bill was different from his entrance, and on through his interview. Although the door was open, he knocked, and when I told him to come in he took his hat off without waiting to be told. And he said “yes, sir” and “no, sir” naturally, without obsequious deference.
I had brought a stack of the various office forms with me we had used in San Francisco, and I handed Bill a job application to fill in. It was a routine one-page form, but it covered a lot of territory. While Bill waited silently for me to talk to him I examined his completed form.
He was thirty-eight, married, the father of two children, and owned his own home in Fullerton (within the twenty-mile commuting distance). He had retired from the Army as a Master Sergeant, duty: first sergeant of infantry, and had been retired for three months.
Bill had never held a civilian job of any kind, having served twenty continuous years in the Army after graduating from high school in Santa Maria, California. During his twenty years he had managed to pick up approximately two years of college credits at various Army posts through college extension courses. His references included a major stationed in Japan, a captain in Europe, and a bird colonel at Fort Benning, Georgia. The lower half of the form, which provided space for the listing of previous employment, was blank. Bill’s signature was noteworthy. Although the form only required first name, middle initial, the last name, Bill had signed his full name–William Conan Harris–in a freeswinging backhand scrawl, and he had underlined it to boot. When a man signs his full middle name it can mean only one thing: Narcissism. So what?
I gave Bill a little test. After digging into my pocket for some change, I tossed some coins on the desk. “How about getting us a couple of Cokes out of the machine, Bill?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Hudson,” he replied. He used his own dimes, ignoring my change on the desk. After working the machine, he handed me an open bottle before he sat down with his own. Respectful independence. What more can an employer desire?
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.”
Woman Chaser is well-plotted, 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 feels impossible.
The movie version by Robinson Devor is supposed to be the best Willeford on film.
Monte Hellman made Cockfighter (1962) into a 1974 movie starring Warren Oates. It did poorly when it was first released, but it now has a small cult following. Willeford appears in the movie. He also wrote the screenplay. He may have found adapting the book a little problematic, as Frank Mansfield 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.)
The same flaming color that tipped his wings was repeated in his head feathers and thighs, but his remaining feathers, including the sweep of his high curving tail, were a luminous peacock blue. Ed was planning—or had planned—to keep him for a brood cock, because his comb and wattles hadn’t been clipped for fighting. His lemon beak was strong, short and evenly met. His feet and legs were as orange and bright as a freshly painted bridge.
The floor of the cock’s private walk was thickly covered with a mixture of finely ground oyster shells and well−grated charcoal, essential ingredients for a fighter’s diet. The oyster shells were for lime content, and the charcoal for digestion, but against this salt−and−pepper background, the cock’s colorful plumage was emphasized.
“He’s got a pretty damned fancy handle, Frank,” Ed said. “I call him Icarus. You probably remember the old legend from school. There was a guy named Daedalus, who had a son named Icarus. Anyway, these two—Greeks they were—got tossed into jail, and Daedalus made a pair of wings out of wax for his boy to escape. This kid, Icarus, put on the wings and flew so damned high he reached the sun and the wings melted on him. He fell to the ground and was killed. No man has ever flown so high before or since, but, anyway, that’s the handle I hung on the chicken. Icarus.”
The reference to Icarus and Daedalus tips Willeford’s hand. Cockfighter is Willeford’s retelling of The Odyssey. So he said, anyway, and perhaps that is why Willeford loved this book so much: he’s playing at the big table of literature.
As remarkable as Cockfighter is, I have trouble with certain details, especially the long, nauseating romantic fantasia about how Frank channels his memories to create powerful music on the guitar. (“…The joyful, contented laughter of a Southern woman…the solid swishing whispering smack of a lawn sprinkler…the house with the four white columns…I played these things.”) I guess I’m like one of Frank’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)
In The Difference (1971) Willeford melds Albert Camus and the traditional western. Almost a decade has gone by since his last prose publication, and his style has become even more assured. It’s harder to tell the seams between the outlandish and the real. Indeed, of all of his books, The Difference is the only one that seems like it could have actually been a true story.
Willeford draws on his extensive knowledge of horses, derived from his time in the U.S. Cavalry (and covered in the final part of Something About a Soldier).
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 first and last time, Willeford has a specific, plump target for satire that can’t be mistaken: conceptual art.
The additional delightful irony is that almost all of Willeford’s output is meta in nature. It needs parsing and explaining (at least in the mind of the reader) just like conceptual art does.
“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 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.)
One of the telling details of Willeford’s life is that he hardly said anything truly interesting about his own books. He wrote hundreds of reviews of others, including fascinating analyses 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.
In other words, Willeford was a serious literary critic. But—with the possible exception of a fairly impenetrable and posthumously published essay about existentialism and Jake Dover from The Difference—Willeford never “got on the lecture platform” about his own work.
Perhaps that was a wise decision. If Willeford had explained how to read his work, maybe he would have had to answer more and more questions. (It’s impossible to imagine Charles Willeford answering direct questions.)
Still, not enough people have read The Burnt Orange Heresy, and surely that is partly because people don’t know what it is. It’s not really Willeford’s fault for not explaining it better, though. The biggest problem is the post-Hoke packaging of Heresy as a straight-ahead crime novel.
Crime novels seldom have untrustworthy narrators. Even the antiheroes of Jim Thompson, Richard Stark, or James Ellroy don’t confuse the reader. When Heresy and most of the other non-Hoke books are classified as a crime novels, the reader may be unprepared to question the actions of the main character—especially in Heresy, where the morality of the lead remains opaque for much of the book.
It would be one thing if Heresy were obviously marketed as a meta-crime story or as “hard-boiled experimental,” like Marc Behm’s The Eye of the Beholder or Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. But an easy-to-find Carroll and Graf mass market edition of Heresy has a bikini-clad babe under a Florida sun on the cover. What a travesty! And 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.” Then the publisher’s paragraph explaining the book compares it to the Hoke Moseley series, even using the word “procedural.”
Maybe Heresy is crime fiction. Maybe. But it’s certainly not a mystery or a procedural. Here’s my blurb:
A powerful 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.
The few hours Figueras and Debierue spend together are full of wonderful details.
Any writer who is awed in the presence of the great or the near-great cannot function critically. I respected Debierue enough to be wary, however, knowing that he was not an ingenuous man, knowing that he had survived as an individual all of these years by maintaining an aloof, if not an arrogant, silence, and a studied indifference to journalists. Debierue realized, I think, that I was on his side, and that I would always take an artist’s viewpoint before that of the insensitive public’s. He had read my work and he remembered my name. I could therefore give him credit for knowing that I was as unbiased as any art critic can ever be. To see his paintings, which was the major reason for my odyssey, I now had to gain his complete confidence. I had to guard against my tendency to argue. Nor should I bait him merely to obtain a few sensational opinions about art as “news.”
“I am curious about why you immigrated to Florida, M. Debierue.”
“I almost didn’t. For my old bones, I wanted the sun. When more than fifty years of my work was burned in the fire-you knew about the fire?”
“A most fortunate accident. It gave me a chance to begin again. The artist who can begin again at my age is a very fortunate man. So it was to the new world I turned, the new world and a new start. Tahiti, I think at first, would be best, but my name would then be linked somehow to Gauguin.” He shook his head sadly. “Unavoidable. Such comparisons would not be fair, but they would have been made. And on the small island, perhaps the bus would pass my studio every day with American tourists to stare at me. Tahiti, no. Then I think, South America?’ No, there is always trouble there. And then Florida seems exactly right. But I did not come right away. I knew about the war in Florida, and I have had enough war in my lifetime.”
“The war?” I said, puzzled. “The war in Vietnam?”
“No, no. The Seminole War. It is well known in Europe that these, the Florida Seminole Indians, are at war with your United States. Is it not so?”
“Yes, I suppose so, but only in a technical sense. The Seminoles are actually a very small Indian nation. And it’s not a real war. It’s a failure on the part of the Indians to sign a peace treaty with the U.S., that’s all. Once in a while there’s a slight legal flare-up, when some Florida county tries to force an Indian kid to go to school when he doesn’t want to go-although a lot of Indians go to school now voluntarily. But there hasn’t been an incident with shots fired for many years. The Seminoles have learned that they’re better off than other Indian nations, in a legal way, by not signing a treaty.”
“But I am not sorry I came to Florida, M. Figueras. Your sun is good for me.”
“And your work?’ Has it gone well for you, too?”
“The artist”-he looked into my eyes-“can work anywhere. Is it not so?”
I cleared my throat to make the pitch I had been putting off. “M. Debierue, I respect your stand on art and privacy very much. In fact, just to sit here talking to you and drinking your fresh orange juice-”
“The fresh frozen,” he emended.
Again, Willeford makes it incredibly difficult to make a clear ruling on his narrators. I’ve always thought Figeuras was amoral, but just now when re-reading, I was astonished to find him rather heroic.
Of all his post-1970 masterworks, The Shark-Infested Custard (mid-Seventies, pub. 1996) may be the most challenging. 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.
With the exception of Don, who’s notably indecisive, the rest of the quartet are quintessential male lecturers. They are too young to have been in WW II, but 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.
The best thing I’ve read about Custard was written by Sheila O’Malley in her essay at The Sheila Variations. O’Malley, properly horrified by these four sharks, points out several psychopathic details I had overlooked.
O’Malley should have added that Custard is a very funny book, though. It’s not just grim, it is hilariously grim.
Norton delivers a classic 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.”
“So they see you, then?”
“Most of them, but you can’t always overcome their prejudices or their ignorance. For example, I might ask a doctor, ‘What do you know about migraine?’ Half the time, he’ll tell me that migraine headaches are psychosomatic, and that you can’t do anything for them. He doesn’t want to listen, you see. His mind is made up. In a case like that, you say, ‘Okay,’ and get onto something else. But when you’re lucky, you’ll run into an intelligent doctor, and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know a dammed thing about migraine. I get four or five cases a week, and I can’t do anything for them.’
“So then you tell him. It so happens that we’ve got a product that reduces or even stops migraine headaches. What happens, you see, is that tension, or something, nobody knows what it is, exactly, causes the blood veins in your temple to constrict. Now this isn’t migraine, not yet. But these veins can’t stay constricted too long because you’ve got to get blood to your head. What happens, pressure builds, and the man can feel the migraine coming on. Then, all of a sudden, the tight veins open up and a big surge of blood gushes through these open vessels, and there’s you migraine headache. What our product does is keep the veins closed. They open eventually, but gradually, slowly. Without the sudden surge of released blood, the headache is either minimized or it doesn’t come.”
“How did you learn all that?”
“Well, in this case, we had a two-day conference in Atlanta, with all of the detail men from Lee Labs in the Southeast present. We had a doctor who has spent his life studying migraine. He briefed us, and our own company men who finally developed the drug briefed us. We had two films, and then some Q. and A. periods. Then we all got drunk, got laid, and flew back to our territories.”
Hank Norton is successful with women, but he’s also obviously ready to run away at the mouth. Eddie Miller talks too much as well, especially when he’s giving Don Luchessi advice.
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 Cockfighter, but I suspect that Willeford thought Warren Oates’s performance in Two-Lane was a rather perfect embodiment of Willeford’s kind of disconnected male. I can easily see Oates playing Norton or Miller.
Shark-Infested Custard is so bizarre formally that you have to wonder if Willeford was following a model, as he did for Cockfighter. At the very least, I believe that he made some kind of checklist concerning male behaviors that fascinated him. While Willeford always writes in detail about what his men wear, he really goes all the way in Custard. He must have studied Seventies bachelor attire like he studied cockfighting and conceptual art.
Pecking order always interested Willeford, too. 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 both learned to do in Business Training. It is an unbelievable scene, almost as amazing as the long psychological profile Norton writes about Miller’s girlfriend. This crime novel also includes more details about silverware services than you’ll find in any other.
If the reader is willing to question every sentence in this weirdly-shaped book, it can 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. 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 popular upon first publication. Their sales in recent years stem from Willeford’s late-in-life success with Miami cop Hoke Moseley. For many of Willeford’s fans, the Moseley series is what matters.
Willeford didn’t think of himself as a crime writer before Hoke. He did admire the genre, and even taught a course in American mystery fiction. I recommend Woody Haut’s essay “Charles Willeford’s Library,” as well as the perceptive analyses in Herron’s biography. Indeed, Herron’s chapter on how the first Hoke Moseley book came together is one of the most riveting segments of Willeford.
When Willeford reviewed Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett biography, he said some interesting things about 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 “truths” are nothing Hammett says directly; they are what Willeford gleans from filling in the blanks. “Interpreting the text” is the sort of thing you are supposed to do with most serious novels and not much genre fiction.
Willeford went further than Hammett in making thrillers worthy of analysis. Miami Blues (1984) is not what it seems to be at first glance. 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.
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).
The first time I read it, I took Miami Blues at face value. The second time, I realized it was satire. The third time, I concluded that it was both.
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 he’s also crafty enough to keep the plot on the rails just enough to satisfy Broadmoor Book Review. And to be fair, I took it in stride the first time, since so many crime novels are full of preposterous coincidences. But in retrospect, this coincidence is a bit much to swallow, especially since it happens right at the beginning of the book.
Willeford was never that interested in plot, anyway. He’s interested in character, and Miami Blues has a full assortment of them.
The major difference between Freddy Frenger, Jr. and all non-Willefordian forebears and followers is his fundamental lack of glamour. Other muscular, wild and crazy killers have sex appeal, and of course the girls beside them are always sexy, too. Examples abound in books by Elmore Leonard, who I believe was a big influence on Miami Blues.
There’s no sex appeal here, though. Susan Waggoner arouses hardly any erotic interest from anybody, not even 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 necessary, 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 niggers 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 is quite bad, but from what we can hear of it, his parsing of the famous haiku is even worse. Basho’s pond is not like a goddamn city! You need to start with mood, with Zen, with nature, in order to get into Basho. However, it’s a perfectly garbled message for blithe psychopath Freddy Frenger. “Glittered” is the ideal concrete word.
After so much discussion of the criminals, it’s important to mention Willeford’s first real sympathetic lead since Pick-Up. Donald E. Westlake blurbed, “Hoke Moseley is a magnificently battered hero. Willeford brings him to us lean and hard and brand-new.” Every reader falls for Hoke, even though he is a sexist, racist, Reagan-voting ex-soldier. Willeford must have drawn upon his own character when creating Hoke. We know that Willeford was an inveterate, occasionally mean-spirited practical joker, and Hoke does incredibly bizarre things while interrogating suspects.
“Maybe your brother left a will?”
“Why would he have a will? He was only twenty-one years old. He didn’t expect to die from a broken finger! I still don’t see how anybody can die from a broken finger.”
“Let me explain,” Hoke said. He finished the last bit of his sandwich and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Dr. Evans is the best pathologist in America, and he’s the best doctor and dentist, too. He said it wasn’t the finger, but the shock that set in because of the broken finger. And if he says that, it’s gospel. Let me tell you about Dr. Evans. ‘Bout a year ago, I had some abscessed teeth, and the only way I could chew was to hold my head over on one side and chew like a dog on the side that didn’t hurt. I was having lunch with Dr. Evans, and after lunch, he took me back to the morgue, shot me up with Novocaine, and pulled all my teeth. Every one of them. Then he made an impression and had these teeth made for me by the same technician who makes all of the Miami Dolphins’ false teeth.”
Hoke took out his dentures, put them on a napkin, and handed them to Susan.
“I didn’t even know you had false teeth,” Susan said. “Did you, Junior?”
“No, I didn’t,” Freddy said. “Let me look at those.”
Susan passed the teeth to Freddy, and he examined them closely before giving them back to Hoke. “Nice,” he said.
“I call ‘em my Dolphin choppers,” Hoke said. He sprinkled some water from his glass on his dentures, then slipped the dentures back into his mouth and adjusted them.
All the Hoke Moseley books have the kind of action and violence that excites hard-boiled and noir fans. But anyone can write that someone’s head was blown off. Willeford writes violence with the kind of uneasy detachment that all decorated WW II vets share. It all seems plausible in a Moseley book; there are no cartoons.
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.
I’m convinced that the final “high noon” between Hoke and Freddy is a parody of Leonard’s City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. The resolution is similar—both criminals are shot three times after a standoff taking place in the homes associated with the women who have just abandoned them—but the emotional reactions of the cops are very different. Leonard’s Raymond Cruz acts like any Western sheriff: after the shootout he watches his dying foe with satisfaction. Hoke is deeply distraught and about to go off the rails.
The George Armitage movie is OK, and some of the actors are good, but it doesn’t connect to Willeford’s meta. It’s a straight crime thriller with a rock and roll soundtrack.
New Hope for the Dead (1985) has a remarkable history. Willeford intended Miami Blues as a standalone. When it was a hit, his agent asked for a series. Willeford didn’t turn in New Hope for the Dead right away, he turned in Grimhaven (unpublished, written 1984-85) instead.
Ray Banks’s terrific take on Grimhaven explains all. I’m proud that my bootleg copy of Grimhaven was sent to me by Donald Westlake. When I thanked him and called the work “exceptional,” he 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. Thankfully, New Hope For the Dead kept the daughters. There’s a familiar Quentin Tarantino quote that 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, killed his kids. Hoke’s humorous family relationships have a deeply dysfunctional background, and the moment in New Hope when Hoke is surprised by his formerly estranged daughters is actually quite chilling.
Hoke’s mind was frozen. For a moment, he had difficulty getting his thoughts together.
Of course, in the universe where the girls survive, Hoke now has the ideal captive audience for his male lectures.
“…As girls, you’ve got two choices. Either you work, or you marry some guy who’ll support you.”
“I don’t want to get married,” Aileen said. “Ever!”
“Okay, then. You can wash dogs. Don’t be disappointed at first when you get turned down a lot. You may not get a single dog to wash. But when someone does see you washing a dog out in the yard, they’ll bring theirs over to you, too. People are like that. They don’t want to be the first one, you see. Later on, when we get settled in Miami, you’ll get repeat business, too, a regular route. Then you can go around and wash the same dogs every month or so. But for the rest of the week, you can practice here on South Beach, and get some experience.”
“What about dog bites? A lot of dogs don’t like strangers.”
“I used to have a muzzle I put on them first. So just wash small dogs at first. Then, after you get your first five bucks, pick up a muzzle at a pet shop. Don’t wash any pit bulls, Dobermans, or Chows. Do you know what these dogs look like?”
Aileen nodded. “Curly Peterson’s got two Dobermans. Twins.”
“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. “
There is also the perfect vignette—“Hoke Moseley prepares for a date.”
Hoke only had one credit card, a Visa card from an obscure bank in Chicago. He had applied for it in person when he had taken a prisoner to Chicago, and the bank had never checked his abysmal credit rating. He called two different seafood restaurants before he made a reservation; he wanted to make sure that his Chicago card would be honored. The card itself was good because Hoke always paid the ten-dollar minimum charge every month. He knew it was the only credit card he was ever likely to have.
La Pescador Habañero’s maître d’ assured Hoke over the phone that his Visa card was acceptable. Jackets were required at La Pescador, but if Hoke didn’t have a jacket, there was a suitable selection in the cloakroom, and he would be furnished with a jacket at no extra charge. Ties, of course, were not required, but if the visitor from Chicago found the evening too humid, he could have a corner table in the courtyard, where the absence of a jacket would not be noticed by the other patrons.
“Never mind,” Hoke said. “We prefer the dining room, where it’s air-conditioned. And I’ll be wearing a leisure suit.”
“Excellent!” the maître d’ said. “As I understand it, leisure suits are coming back into style again.”
“And I’ll want a bottle of wine, Bordeaux, if you have it–”
“Any particular vintage?”
“I don’t care. Just have it uncorked and breathing on the table when we get there.”
That’ll cost me, Hoke thought, but what the hell? He hadn’t been laid in a long time.
Hoke had mixed feelings about having dinner with Loretta. He was horny, but he was far from confident that he would end up in Loretta’s bed. Was she interested in him as a lover, or did she take him up on his invitation just because he wanted an expensive dinner? In a way, Hoke knew he was indirectly trying to buy a piece of ass, but a man could spend a lot of money on a woman and end up without so much as a good-night kiss.
This woman was sexy as hell, and physically attractive, but Hoke knew how he looked. He had no idea how Loretta felt about him. One thing Hoke knew for sure: Some women liked to fuck cops just because they were cops, and he hoped that Loretta was one of them.
The occasionally serious toughness of the Hoke books contextualizes the relentless satire. 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 my favorite Moseley, and it may even be my favorite Willeford overall. (I don’t think I can chose between Something About a Soldier, The Burnt Orange Heresy, and New Hope For the Dead.) It is a genuine murder mystery, the only one Willeford ever wrote, yet the ending is unlike any other.
This may be overreaching, but perhaps one reason Willeford didn’t want to write a series is because he thought Miami Blues was a one-off parody. As far as I know, no one called it a parody at the time, so 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 a parody like Miami Blues; Willeford fits in his weirdness within the frame.
He couldn’t keep up that kind of relatively obvious style, though. (Herron, for one, thinks New Hope is too obvious, even a placeholder.) Perhaps Willeford was bemused at how to keep going. For Sideswipe (1987), he reached 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.
Some consider Sideswipe the greatest Moseley. As Tarantino suggests, Hoke’s interactions with his family are 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.”
When the threads gather and the opposing teams finally meet, Sideswipe becomes a gritty, almost conventional crime novel. I won’t spoil it for someone who doesn’t know it, but when I first brought up Willeford to Westlake, he immediately cited Sideswipe as having one of the genre’s very best last lines.
For me, both Sideswipe and The Way We Die Now (1988) suffer slightly as Willeford seems to run out of ideas for how to keep conventionality at bay. Many admire the first scene in The Way We Die Now. I do, too, but I don’t recognize any meta. For the first time, this teaser almost feels like it could be Leonard or another tough crime writer. According to Herron, Willeford dictated it last, in near-mortal pain, at the request of his publisher. As I say, I admire it, but I also don’t like re-reading it, because I know Willeford is finally knuckling under: an old soldier of the weird is finally doing what he’s supposed to do.
The teaser was requested because a violent climax about two-thirds through the book was thought to need foreshadowing. That climax is again very well done, but there’s nothing meta—except for one astonishing line:
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.
The cop says he had to kill an evil killer because the dead guy wouldn’t have found work as a blind man? Again we are reminded of Hank Norton in Shark-Infested Custard: “This murder of Wright, as necessary as it was, and I would always remind myself that it was necessary, and not a gratuitous act, had changed me forever.”
Many other of the plot details are prime Willeford. The potentially Sherlockian investigation of the garage-door opener is a total bust. The potential Moriarty across the street comes over for dinner and is discomfited by Ellita’s public breast-feeding.
Rank is a major theme of the Moseley books: who’s getting promoted, demoted, and how much affirmative action plays a part in the ladder system. Willeford said that he didn’t research the Miami police department. I’m not sure whether to believe him or not, but surely his army experiences were all he needed for scenes like these:
Hoke…left his cubicle to look for Commander Bill Henderson.
Henderson emerged from the elevator, carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his left hand and his clipboard in his right…
“You didn’t shave this morning, Hoke, so you’re the new chairman of our Homicide Crack Committee.”
“You told me yesterday not to shave, you bastard!”
“I know I did. But I don’t have anyone else available just now. You can pick out two more detectives for your committee, and start thinking of ways to crack down on crack abusers and crack houses.”
Hoke finished his coffee and lighted a Kool, wondering what, if anything, he could come up with (as a homicide detective) to combat the use of crack in Miami. He couldn’t think of anything, except to charge crack sellers with second-degree murder. But legislation like that was unlikely. He would select Sergeant Armando Quevedo and Detective Bob Levine for his committee. The three of them could go out for a few beers at Larry’s Hideaway, kick the idea around, and then come up with a meaningless report of some kind.
It was unfair of Bill Henderson to make him the chairman, but Hoke didn’t resent the appointment. He knew that if he had been in Henderson’s position, he would have appointed the first man he happened to see, too.
Unlike the young Willeford in Something About a Soldier, Hoke doesn’t strive for more stripes (although many others in the department certainly do). Near the end of the book, a promotion Hoke has been dodging for several books finally happens. After everyone else has left, Hoke responds by throwing up.
Hoke is horribly treated by his girls and partner in The Way We Die Now. The only redeeming aspect of Hoke’s emasculation is how well it works to set-up the final sentence. In classic immobilized man fashion, Hoke has pushed all his pain inside him, unwilling to express any emotion, so his daughter starts crying, telling Hoke she is crying, “Because you can’t!”
The cover of my mass market Ballantine paperback proclaims The Way We Die Now as “A Hoke Moseley Detective Thriller.” That final sentence, “Because you can’t!” wouldn’t work for any other Detective Thriller I can think of—but it’s a perfect final flourish from Charles Willeford.
[UPDATE: Before the final section from 2012, here’s a bit more on Grimhaven — via Douglas Adams, who is not a science fiction writer the way Willeford is not a mystery writer — written fall 2015.
I was not only exactly the correct age when I discovered Douglas Adams, I was fed him in a perfect sequence of incremental amounts. Step one: The first few years of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and serious SF like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein (the latter’s Double Star foreshadows Adams). Step two: The comic years of Tom Baker culminating in the Adams-penned “City of Death.” Step three: The BBC television adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. Step four: The first four books by Douglas Adams.
I was about 15 when the cycle was complete.
At first I enjoyed all the books uncritically. (“Enjoyed” undersells the transaction, frankly: “memorized” is more accurate.) However, even as a teen I was rather disappointed by So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Years later, when Mostly Harmless came out, I was even more disappointed.
Paging through the texts now I can confirm that the first two books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, are the genuine article. The imagination is incandescent and the tone is consistent. (Apparently the publisher, anxious to capitalize on the success of the BBC versions, rudely took away what was done of the first manuscript to publish. This is why the ending of Hitchhiker’s is so abrupt and also why Restaurant is so smoothly connected: they were not initially planned as separate books.)
Life, the Universe, and Everything is frequently hilarious, but it falters when Adams gets involved in a heroic/action plot.
Mostly set in modern England, So Long and All the Fish shows the biggest indebtedness to P.G. Wodehouse. There are some great scenes—but Fish is essentially a romantic comedy that might have been more successful as a standalone. Is this really the same Arthur Dent from the first three books?
Finally, Mostly Harmless is nearly unreadable: a truculent and bitter missive determined to end the series on the darkest note imaginable.
Now that I know Charles Willeford’s famous unpublished book Grimhaven I see Mostly Harmless in a more sophisticated light, for Grimhaven was Willeford’s truculent and bitter missive determined to end the series on the darkest note imaginable.
Willeford’s agent refused Grimhaven, but no agent could refuse a book by Douglas Adams. Adams was too powerful and famous. Mostly Harmless was published, and Adams got some kind of obscure revenge against his fans.
Looking at Mostly Harmless again has lowered my opinion of Grimhaven a bit. I still enjoy Grimhaven because it was a unique and transgressive and remains a terrific anecdote about Charles Willeford. However, it’s good to remember that I have the luxury of enjoying that opinion because there were three more Moseley books.
If an agent had brusquely returned the manuscript of Mostly Harmless to Adams, if Adams had slept on it and called it off, we might have had a much more tolerable ending to the Hitchhiker canon.
Sometimes you should really listen to your agent.]
The Machine in Ward Eleven (1963)
Writing and Other Blood Sports (2000)
The Second Half of the Double Feature (2003)
The early collection The Machine in Ward Eleven (1963) was once marketed as a science fiction novel. I have the original Belmont issue: the blurb on the cover from Science Fiction Quarterly says, “The weirdest tale that has been published in America since Edgar Allan Poe.” Each section is called a “chapter.” The back cover has more misleading information:
It’s not science fiction, deep Southern fiction, or a novel! Especially a commissioned novel.
There are 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). According to Herron, 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).” An Alcoholics Anonymous fantasia. (Not too good, in my opinion.)
“Jake’s Journal.” A warm-up for Something About a Soldier.
“Just Like on Television.” This is easily my favorite piece of these six, a hilarious transcription of a police interrogation. (It should really be reprinted in a high-level crime anthology.)
“The Alectryomancer,” Very good also: a kind of a Roald Dahl-type of tale, vaguely connected to Cockfighter.
The serious Willefordian will want to have The Machine in Ward Eleven, and it will be of special interest to those who treasure books that transcend their pulp packaging. However, the best things in the posthumous anthologies are more essential. It helps to have Herron’s bilbiography close at hand, especially when looking at The Second-Half of the Double Feature.
Although it could use an introduction, Dennis McMillan did a good job of curating Writing and Other Blood Sports (2000), a collection focused on the literary life. Some details could be clearer: The fact that “New Forms of Ugly” is a master’s thesis shouldn’t be buried in the text—it’s the single most important detail to understand the context. And the explanation of the fact that “Hat” is an earlier version of the still center of I Was Looking For A Street shouldn’t be given only in the tiniest print, and in the middle of a vast paragraph of credits.
Most of Writing and Other Blood Sports is non-satirical or “straight up,” although one shouldn’t be too hasty making that claim about anything by Willeford. I would guess that “A Matter of Dedication” is a fictional piece of satire. That’s a truly enjoyable piece; Ray Banks likes it, too. My other favorites include:
“Newsboy.” Willeford’s outrageous supposition about why he was never reviewed by the LA Times.
“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 reminds me of Westlake writing about Peter Rabe: masters humbly acknowledging important teachers.
“Diane Johnson’s Hammett.” The essential first paragraph has already been quoted here and in many other places.
“Coda.” Should accompany I Was Looking For a Street.
“Fred Shaw Obituary.” Worth the price of the book. In no other place do you get a sense of what Willeford might have been like as a man. It’s a really generous and beautiful tribute to an important local colleague. Shaw’s appreciation of Willeford, “The Burnt-Orange Heretic,” is also collected in Writing and Other Blood Sports.
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 certainly interesting to know the breadth of his reading.
The Second Half of the Double Feature (2003) throws important work together senselessly. This anthology deserves a second edition, with an editor on board who understands the canon.
To begin with, the paperback and hardback contents are different. You must get the hardback, for it has the full reprint of Proletarian Laughter, including the seven essential “Schematics.” The rest of the book is most (but not all, goddamnit!) of the now rare and expensive McMillan anthology Everybody’s Metamorphosis, plus several previously unpublished pieces from Betsy Willeford’s private collection, eventually donated to the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book at Broward University.
Incredibly, 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 attributed; 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.
What a nightmare, both bibliographically and aesthetically.
All the stories are listed as fiction, which I contest. 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 up there with anything from Something About A Soldier.
Other notable selections that absolutely require some kind of editoral comment:
“The First Five In Line.” One of the bigger pieces, but according to Herron it is just a fragment of a projected novel. It foreshadows reality TV but is not really to my taste.
“The Condemmed.” This is an early version of the hapless Igorot story. It’s so important in Something About a Soldier but lacks impact on its own.
“Saturday Night Special.” Aargh! This is the first section of The Shark-Infested Custard. It’s great, but, again, we need the whole book.
The rest of The Second Half of the Double Feature varies in quality. Since there are no dates on anything, it’s hard to know what we are looking at.
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 as possible reprint contenders for modern crime anthologies wanting to use something from Willeford:
“The Pop-Off Caper.” Reminds me of 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.” This is the best crime short. It concerns a psychopathic cop and has a satisfying twist ending. If I discovered it in a magazine or general crime anthology I’d look for more from this writer.
“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.
I don’t have something to say about every story in these anthologies. Nor do I get most of Willeford’s poetry. I haven’t sprung for a few collectible bits and pieces because they don’t have much rep, but I’d like to take a trip to Broward sometime and look at the archive: apparently there’s still more unpublished in any form. It would be great if everything could be published some day in a critical edition overseen by people who understand the complete context.
To finish, I’m going to repost something that used to be hosted on the McMillan site. (It’s now collected in The Second Half of the Double Feature.) After reading and enjoying the Moseley books, it was this little taste of surreal perfection that made me go out and read everything else.
Each concrete word conveys an exact meaning, carefully chosen to make the reader reach for something. Each word glitters in that uniquely Willefordian fashion.
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.”
I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: