Addendum: The Reading List


Okay.  Here’s the deal.

I have had a project in my mind for some time now.  Supplemental, though not subsidiary, to the one I’ve just completed.

When I started reading and then reviewing Westlake, I got interested in writers Westlake referred to, directly or indirectly.  One of the books that came my way was the Library Of America anthology entitled American Noir of the 1950’s.  One novel apiece, by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.

The best anthology of its type ever compiled (I have a few quibbles about the way it’s organized, but I’m a born quibbler), and the most puzzling–some of these writers had just gotten started in the 50’s. Willeford wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen by then, nobody had heard of him.  But retrospectively, right on the money.   Five powerful voices, five unique individuals, five novels that had been published, more or less, as trashy entertainment–then turned out to be a whole lot more than met the eye.  Because their authors were precisely that.

One way or another, Westlake made his appreciation of them known–and in some cases, his debt to them.  As I’ve said, if you wrote anything in the mystery field, and you really could write, he noticed you.  He marked you down as the competition–but also as allies.  To the extent prose authors can be allies.  And I think they can.

Because, you see, in any publishing niche, there’s a push towards uniformity, towards dumbing it down, not confusing the readers with unneeded complexity and (in the case of these five) downright perversity.  Towards formula.  They all worked within formulas, within molds–and they all shattered the molds they worked within.  Too large to be contained by them.  And yet, somehow, needing them as a starting point.  An incubator.

Of the five, only two could be said to have started out as genre authors–Goodis and Highsmith (Goodis in the pulps, Highsmith in classy hardcover mysteries, though she would go slumming now and again).

Thompson and Himes began as ‘serious’ novelists–Willeford started out as a sort of beat poet, though no bohemian he.  They washed out in that tonier arena, deservedly or not–many called, few chosen.  And they needed to write.  They needed people to read what they’d written.  So they found a second home in mystery, in crime, in ‘noir’–and somehow they found in the conventions of that genre the distancing mechanism that had eluded them in their more mainstream efforts.  And thus they made high art out of low.

If the price of great art is suffering, they can all be said to have paid their dues with compound interest.  I hope to never say of any friend of mine that his or her life is a biographer’s wet dream, but that could be said for all of these people.

Thompson was a child of the dust bowl, marked by the poverty and ignorance of his youth that he’d painfully risen above, that never stopped trying to pull him back down again.  An alcoholic okie; mystery’s answer to Philip K. Dick, some have called him.  I just call him a mystery, period, full-stop.  One that may not have a solution.

Himes bore the wounds of racism–and prison–and most of all, of being smarter, more perceptive, than everyone around him.  Loving his people, seeing their beauty and their flaws, knowing that White America never would give them an honest break, even while he yearned for some kind of rapprochement between the races, living in self-imposed exile in Europe.  One would like to say he was over-pessimistic about his native land, but evidence of that is thin on the ground at present.

Highsmith was rejected by her mother in a way that left her with permanent emotional scars, and although her sexual orientation was towards other women, she always preferred being around men.  Which didn’t make her any less of a misanthrope, and at times, a bigot.  People found her difficult to like–presumably because she never much liked herself.  She was at least an honest hater, and there is value in that.

Goodis, son of Philadelphia, had a comfortable enough lower middle class Jewish upbringing, made a decent living as a writer, left a substantial fortune when he died, but was a mass of neuroses, hopelessly divided between the life he wanted and the life that was expected of him.  The lyrics for I Can’t Get Started might as well have been written by him instead of Ira Gershwin, and well he knew it.  The Poet of the Losers, he would be called, but what better subject exists for poetry?

Willeford spent his adolescence as a Depression-era hobo, then had a long career as an NCO in the small peacetime army of the 30’s, leading to highly distinguished service in WWII–that he only dealt with in his poetry, because what really happened in that war was too painful for him to approach by any other route.  (It seems safe to say that Charles Willeford was one of the few great mystery authors who was a killer in other than the fictional sense, and many times over at that).  More than any of the others, he surprises, because even when he’s writing pure formula fiction, he can’t help doing the precise opposite of what you’d expect.  He wanted success on his own terms, or not at all.  And only achieved that success when he had just a few years left to enjoy it.  And he tried his best to sabotage it.  A real Willeford twist, that was.

Five edgy iconoclastic irritating underappreciated American geniuses–underappreciated to this day–and the thing about genius is, it’s always sui generis.  No two exactly alike, yet each will have points in common with the others.  To talk about who is the greatest genius is missing the point of genius.

(The other thing about literary geniuses is they don’t tend to play well with others.  Several of these five knew each other, at least in passing.  None were friends.)

Still, underappreciated though they be, rather less so than Westlake.  There are multiple scholarly biographies for Thompson, Himes, and Highsmith.  Goodis and Willeford have both had more idiosyncratic tomes devoted to them, and Westlake has yet to appear in any LOA collection.  They at least have attained the beginnings of critical respect.  I rather suspect part of the problem for Westlake, aside from the lack of a colorful biography (or, to date, any) is that he wrote too damn much.

To say Westlake was more prolific than any of them is understating the point–he was roughly as prolific as all of them combined.  That, in itself, proves nothing.  You judge writers by their best work.  The work in which they come closest to telling us who they really were.  And by that yardstick, I would say that if he ever had somehow spent an evening with the five of them, that would have been an assembly of equals.  An encounter that never happened, alas.

Or did it?

I could maybe arrange for that to happen here.

Thing is, who’s going to read it?  My reviews have been geared to people who read Westlake.  How many people out there have substantially read all these five?

And even though I have spent quality time with all of them, know the better part of their work (pretty much all of Willeford), does that qualify me to write about them?  I need more context.  Which means I’m going to have to read some of those biographies, and other things–flesh out my mental maps of each.  I figure I’ll be ready late next year.  Which is going to work out for me in terms of the pop cultural metaphor I’ve come up with to group these five together.

So in the meantime–if you’re interested–if you’ve got the time–here’s the beer.

David Goodis:

A lot of Goodis is e-vailable now, but not nearly enough.  Even reprints of some of his rarer novels can be pricey.  You can’t go wrong with the five-book Library of America collection, which covers the bases pretty well–one of his signature pieces, Down There, is in the 1950’s anthology I mentioned further back.  There’s an ebook for Cassidy’s Girl, one of his biggest sellers, and a pivot for him–the beginning of his mature style–also something of a confessional piece, with regards to his personal life.  For most of the rest, it’s up to you how many raggedy old paperbacks you want to spend too much money on.

His short stories are a very mixed bag, and I doubt anybody’s ever read them all. The collection Black Friday and Selected Stories is well worth obtaining. There’s a new e-collection, Caravan to Tarim, and I loved the title piece.  As for the rest, well if you dig WWII fables where the gutsy American fighter pilot says things like “Die, you Nazi rat!” you’re in for a treat.

Jim Thompson:

People can get into fights over which Thompsons are the best.  Or the worst.  I tend to prefer his western yarns to his eastern idylls, though Savage Night certainly is one of his classics.  His novels are never long, they’re always readable (if at times nigh-incoherent), and you’re pretty much on your own figuring out which to get.  Most are e-vailable (and not cheap, he’s got a serious following now, pity it didn’t come along sooner).

The Killer Inside Me, of course.  That’s the one the LOA put in that 50’s collection, and you’re never quite the same again after reading it.  Not for the squeamish.   The first real Thompson machine gun.

Other than the two I’ve mentioned, I’d focus in (a bit predictably, perhaps) on A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280.  But if you’d like to look past all the savage nights, sweeten the mix just a bit, glimpse the man behind the mayhem–can I strongly recommend South of Heaven?  Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, and he’s worth knowing.  Only a good man needs to know how much evil there is inside him.

Chester Himes:

One of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is reading his ‘serious’ novels, as well as his autobiographical work.  I look forward to both.  Now let’s get really serious.  If you love American crime fiction, and you haven’t read the Harlem Detective novels, you are missing out on the ride of your life, in a little beat-up black Plymouth sedan that moves faster than you’d imagine possible, takes corners like nobody’s business.

There is nothing in all of world fiction (please note the lack of qualifiers) that can surpass the investigations of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, and the many-hued denizens of Himes’ Harlem Of The Mind that he conjured up in France.  Yeah, I said it.  So read it.

I haven’t read the last one.  The one he didn’t publish.  I guess I’ll have to now.  I will never accept the ending I’ve read about.  I want to believe he didn’t either. But maybe it’ll look different when I get there.

Patricia Highsmith:

She’s not likable.  That doesn’t mean you can’t love her.  My significant other, a gentle soul, goes nuts over everything she writes.  I see the value in all of it, but at times it does seem a chore, slogging your way through her densely worded over-analytic prose, her needlessly repetitive plotting, to the nigh-inevitable downfall. And the evil mothers. Oy, so many evil mothers. Being a misogynistic lesbian must have been very painful. But of such dichotomies is great literature often born.

As a devotee of the Parker novels, I’m more into the Ripliad, her most optimistic work (probably not the best adjective), and the major point of connection between her and that side of Westlake that was Richard Stark.  That will be my primary focus.  I will, however, devote some time to some non-series novels and to her short stories, a form I suspect she was better at than any of the others on this list.

The thing about Highsmith is–she’s best in small doses, particularly at first.  Like a poison you build up a gradual resistance to.  Perhaps no other writer better exemplified what A.E. Housman wrote about in that section of A Shropshire Lad that begins “Terence this is stupid stuff.”  Though to be sure, she didn’t die that old.  Just a bit younger than Westlake.

As with Thompson, you might want something to leaven the dough.  In her case, that would be The Price of Salt–and perhaps also The Tremor of Forgery. There’s a dog in it.  She’s always a bit gentler with animals.  Which does, in fact, make me love her.

Charles Willeford:

It would take very little time, really, to read his entire body of work.  He didn’t produce that much.  It’s all extremely readable.  The trick is to obtain it.  The Hoke Moseley books are easy to get–maybe too easy.  I admire them, but don’t agree with Westlake that they constitute his best work (if that is in fact what Westlake thought they were).  They’re his most commercial work.  Once you have read them, you’ll recognize what a bizarre thing that is to say.

Cockfighter is e-vailable.  You have to read that, but it can make The Killer Inside Me seem humane.  He is not gentler with animals.  He’s not gentle with anybody.  His favorite among his books, and I’ll tell you why someday.

The Burnt Orange Heresy has no ebook, but isn’t hard to find.  Many think it’s his best–I would neither agree nor argue.  It’s the most perfectly balanced thing he wrote, which isn’t quite the same.   The ideal gift for the art-lover in your life. Tell him/her I recommended it.

His two volume memoirs are e-vailable, and unforgettable, and let’s just call them extra credit.  His metier was fiction.  It was good of him to leave some clues as to what inspired it.

If you can get his short western novel, The Difference (aka The Hombre From Sonora), then do.  The Black Mass of Brother Springer is essential Willeford, and that’s e-vailable (and I yearn to know what my friends who happen to be black would think about it, but I have so few friends of any color–don’t want to scare any of them away).

The Woman Chaser has maybe the worst title of any of his novels (a large statement), but it’s one of his best.  Pick-Up is in the LOA 50’s collection.  That is a problematic book to talk about.  On many levels.  But by all means, pick it up. An early gem, that shows the influence of Goodis, I think.  Willeford also noticed anybody who could write.  And often improved upon them.  Knowing, of course, that nobody would notice he’d done so.

His story collection The Machine In Ward Eleven is a collectible.  I collected it. You don’t have to.  I’m just now reading a collection of stories, articles and poems by him, entitled The Second Half of the Double Feature.  I would rank him higher than Westlake with regards to the short form–not by much.  He also needed more room to run.  But when he got a piece of that ball, he’d knock the stuffings out of it.  The more you read him, the better you know him, but that’s true of anybody worth reading.

With Willeford, all I can really say is, if you’re one of the people I’m hoping to reach with these articles I’m hoping to write, once you start reading him–you’ll keep going.  All the way to his meandering misbegotten monstrosity, The Shark-Infested Custard.  Which gets more socially relevant–and less socially acceptable–with every passing moment.

So maybe a year from now, we can talk.  Or, if you’ve read some of this already, we could talk here.  Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.  Anyway.  I’ve got a present for you guys.  I’m just starting to write it.  It won’t be ready for Christmas, but I’ll try to get it to you by New Year’s.  Many happy returns.



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29 responses to “Addendum: The Reading List

  1. Richard Larson

    Bravo to you! Based on my devotion to Westlake, I am now collecting Willeford, Himes and Goodis. Was happy to see your similar inclination. Also, I deeply lament that there is no biography of Westlake. His brief autobiographical piece included in “The Getaway Car” was delicious but only left me wanting more, much more. Please keep up your fine work. I was rueful at the thought of the ending of your wonderful missives. Cheers.

    • They’re all what I’d call genre-busters. They start with a format, but they don’t stick to it. Most of my favorite writers are like that. Honestly, I think all good writers are like that, to some extent. “I’m just going to write about LIFE!” Yeah, and so is the guy live-blogging laundry night. You need a structure, if only to rebel against.

      You’ll have plenty of time to collect and to read. It’s a project. I had read all of Westlake before I started this blog.

      Westlake started work on his memoirs–then stopped. Because there were secrets he wasn’t ready to tell? Or because the secret was that he decided his life was too boring? Bit of both? I think he was happier, on the whole, than these five. And that’s bad news–to an aspiring biographer. You ever hear the term “Agony Aunt”? That’s a biographer in a nutshell. Only they only give you advice after you’re dead. Some help, huh?

  2. J. Goodman

    …and is “Plan B” the Chester Himes equivalent of “Grimhaven”? I’m staying tuned to find out!

    • Yeah, I thought about that. I haven’t read Grimhaven either. I feel differently about Hoke than Gravedigger and Coffin Ed–I like him, but he’s not exactly a hero of mine. Doesn’t bother me as much (Willeford came at the same basic story from a less extreme angle in Sideswipe).

      But that is, arguably, an even more disturbing finish than Plan B–the exclamation point at the end of what would have been a two-book series, if Willeford had his way. Can you imagine the look on their faces at the publisher, shortly after that manuscript arrived in the mail? Must have been some interesting conversations afterwards.

      They had a lot in common, Himes and Willeford (I wouldn’t put it past Willeford to have been knowingly emulating Himes when he wrote Grimhaven). School of hard knocks does not half say it.

      Thompson also went through some terrible shit when he was young. South of Heaven is, you might say, his Ah, Wilderness!, but I would not call it nostalgic. Just mellower than most of his other stuff. Late entry in the canon, more reflective, and I think the point is, “Okay, I had a hellish youth, but I survived it, met a great girl, got an education, and if I’d just gotten drunk a bit less…..”

      Goodis and Highsmith, it was more about family crap. Westlake–who knows?

  3. So, when I said I was taking a break from Parker, that didn’t mean I was necessarily taking a break from this blog 😉

    I read The Burnt Orange Heresy the other day and I figured this was the most appropriate place to talk shop about it. Overall, I really liked it! Damn good book.

    James Figueras is one of Willeford’s best asshole characters (easily on par with Frank Mansfield), he’s such a fascinatingly pretentious shitweasel. There were things he did that made me pause and go “Wha…whaaa…you…this fucking guy…”

    You said that this book still had the power to shock. Myself personally, I just felt sad and empty by the time we came to the climax. It was so…predictable, but in a good way! Like, of course James would do that, we all knew he would, just going by what he’s done during the entire book.

    What do you think of the ending? I know James said he was trying to “pay his dues” but I’m not sure. There’s a part of me that wonders if James was stealthily giving out one last insult, his final taunt to someone he’s been insulting and taunting at for the entirety of the story.

    • Note to anyone reading this: I’m going to try and avoid any overt spoilers, but I would hate to ruin any Willeford for anyone, so proceed at your own peril).

      I think that like Cockfighter (and several other Willefords), this book is about a man who is utterly devoted to one thing, in this case becoming the acknowledged authority on one artist. The difference is, Frank Mansfield learns how to compromise, while still remaining true to his central vision of how his life should be lived. James doesn’t have that option, because unlike Frank, he’s devoted to something unreal.

      You make two chickens fight to the death, one lives and one dies–that’s horrible, but it’s real. There’s no subjective aspect there. The woman you thought was your one true love can’t accept the life you’ve chosen, you find one who actively prefers it (and therefore, you), and say goodbye to love (but not sex,). On his own terms, Frank makes his bets (and his side-bets), and lives with their consequences.

      I don’t think pretentious is the right word. The problem for James is that the art itself was a pretense, and he ends up having to maintain that illusion in order to achieve his goal. Having achieved it, he has nothing left to live for, and will make amends for the crime he committed in order to achieve it. He knows what he did was wrong, he regrets it, but he was irrevocably committed to the path he was on. He is not a malicious person. Just fatally singleminded and obsessed. Willeford writes a lot of cautionary tales in this vein, because he sees this obsessive tendency very strongly in himself.

      Bear in mind, this is a man who finally wrote a very successful book after a long history of commercial failure, and then when prompted to write a sequel, had the protagonist murder his own daughters in order to enjoy a peaceful life in solitary confinement, preparatory to the gas chamber. I mean, they talked him into writing a somewhat less grim sequel that did get published, and no doubt he told himself while he (grudgingly) did this that he would rather be Frank than James. (Frank James. Jesus. The things you find when you’re not even looking.)

      Charles Willeford was no pretender, nor was he a shitweasel (though some of his characters are). He was maybe the most terrifyingly honest and uncompromising writer I’ve ever encountered. We think that being honest and uncompromising is a good thing. We need to understand that sometimes it’s not, and he’s a good way to learn that lesson. He’s learning it along with us. He wants to make sure he doesn’t forget. But I wouldn’t be so sure he doesn’t agree with James’ choice, given the options he’s provided James. He just has serious doubts about the choice of goals James made, before we ever met him. Having made that choice badly, no good ending was possible. (You know, no author of fiction is ever going to write a happy ending for a critic–the only exception I know of is in Ratatouille, and only after he stops being a critic).

      • I’m not so sure about James not being malicious. He takes a lot of pleasure in insulting Berenice (especially when he thinks she doesn’t realize she’s being insulted), and he negs her constantly. In regards to the thing he did, while he might have not taken pleasure in the act, he had no reservations about doing it. Not to mention the constant rationalizations he kept giving for his actions. He also gets over his regret later on down the line. I dunno, maybe my understanding of the word is way off the mark, but I feel James was definitely malicious.

        I’d talk about the other stuff but dammit this is really hard when you have to factor in spoilers. 😛

        • But you know why he does that, don’t you? He likes her. (I know, it’s a cliche, but one not only found in fiction). More sexually than personally, but both. And that means she’s a dangerous distraction from his goal. Delilah to his Samson.

          He’s seriously tempted to just forget about getting that tiny meaningless article in the huge meaningless art encyclopedia, and just spend the rest of his life fucking her. I’d say more peevishness than anything else. She’s a complication he doesn’t want, and I’d posit that at least part of the way he treats her is him trying to drive her away. And she won’t go. And part of him doesn’t want her to, but that part only influences him when engorged with blood. (Yeah. Ew.)

          Thing is, she’s paying no attention what he says. She’s correctly reading his physical reaction to her, understands she’s wearing him down through dint of persistence and pulchritude, doesn’t understand his obsession, because only a fellow obsessive possibly could understand. She’s just a healthy uncomplicated person, and opposites attract.

          This is a persistent theme in Willeford. The woman keeps getting in the way of the man getting his work done. And the man not realizing that he’d be far happier chucking the work and concentrating on the woman (I can think of few exceptions to how this story plays out in Willeford’s oeuvre).

          This is basically the end of the Hoke Moseley saga (spoiler alert, kinda) but that plays out much more happily for the girl in question, because she, like Frank, understands there’s more than one fish in the sea of sex–trust me, there are women who win in the world of Willeford).

          He’s not a nice guy, but it’s Willeford, and there are no nice guys in his stories. Not a lot of nice girls either, but there are some, and Lord pity them. They need to get out of there and into a Westlake comedy.

          I mean, there are literally woman who get into relationships with jailed violent convicts (if they’re serial killers, at least they probably won’t get out). She’s just dating a fly-by-night art critic. How’s she to know where this is going? Who the hell could guess something like that? I was inside James’ head, and I didn’t guess where this was going. If you did, my hat’s off.

          Try a little thought experiment–flip the script. The woman is out to achieve something personally important to her. She’s fucking this affable slightly dimwitted blonde male schoolteacher to pass the time, who doesn’t have the slightest idea who she really is, what she really wants, and would just as soon she threw it all in, get a real job, go meet the folks. It becomes necessary in the course of human events for something dire to happen. She feels bad, but a girl has to think about her career.

          Would you react the same exact way?

          We all have conflicting agendas. Sometimes the conflicts turn deadly.

          • Well yeah, I figured part of it had to do with him genuinely having some sort of feelings for her. That being said, there are definitely moments where he gets a kick out of supposedly being more intellectual than her. There’s a scene at Debierue’s house where they’re all talking about how lonely Debierue’s life is. Berenice suggest he take on a student, to which he and James laugh. James in particular is laughing at Berenice’s reaction because she doesn’t seem to realize they’re laughing AT her. In that particular instance, at least, it honestly seems like he’s taking delight in mocking her.

            I don’t blame Berenice at all for shacking up with James. After all, she’s not privy to his inner thoughts like we are, nor is she privy to what kind of story she’s in.

            I did happen to see the climax coming, actually. The book was pitched to me by the description on the back as a crime novel written by Charles Willeford about an art critic who was willing to do anything to further his career. I dunno, it just seemed clear to me where the direction would go based on that.

            To answer your thought experiment: If we’re talking about a story that’s entirely the same aside from James and Berenice having changed genders, then yeah I’d call her a fucking bitch. And that’s being me nice.

            If we’re talking about a general scenario, well that depends entirely on what this “something dire” is. Is it just a break up? Something more insidious?

            • I’d forgotten that scene. It’s been a while. But is that about his feelings towards her specifically, or just a general feeling that he’s smarter than most people, exacerbated by insecurity over his lack of material success?

              James is very smart, mind you. Just not in a very productive way. I can relate. People who have worked very hard to achieve a certain level of prowess in a given field do often tend to be that way. Also doctors and lawyers. ::rimshot::

              Let me just run over my own review of Westlake’s A Travesty to see if I remembered to mention that it bears certain similarities to this earlier and far better work–yes, I did. The one thing A Travesty had over The Burnt Orange Heresy was that it had a movie made out of it, and turns out as of 2019, that advantage is gone (it’s even got Donald Sutherland!). As to which movie is better, I haven’t seen either one, so…..

              I didn’t see that edition (they really shouldn’t write synopses on the covers of mystery novels, though of course they always have and always will. Hopefully they’ll be so inaccurate as to give you no cues, which was often the case with Willeford’s books). I didn’t think we were heading for a fairy-tale ending, because Willeford. Well, maybe if the fairy tale was written by the Brothers Grimm. But it’s a bit hard for the average person to imagine how wanting to write the definitive article on a modern artist could lead to–that. Willeford could. The challenge, for him, would be not to make us like it, but to make us believe it, and obviously he did. Westlake approaches the material more from the standpoint of farce, where serious emotions are verboten. I don’t think that’s true with Willeford’s book. James does feel what he did. He just won’t let it stand in the way of his objective.

              You’re a fair-minded person. Not everyone is. I would be interested in your reaction to a certain subplot in The Shark-Infested Custard involving a female who might be said to merit the b-word (and would have no problem being called it), but you’d have to read that for us to discuss it. Hint Hint. 😉

              • See, I’m not sure Berenice is dimwitted at all. Hell, in one instance, I think she proves to be smarter than James and Mr. Cassidy. During the drive to Debierue’s, Berenice notes the stunning enduring success of Debierue’s work and proceeds to ask how it’s possible. Without getting too much into spoilers, that turns out to be a VERY IMPORTANT question that James should’ve considered instead of laughing her off.

                The edition I read was by The Overlook Press and it frames it as a question. “Will James push beyond morality’s limits to get a bigger payoff?”

                And to that I say…well, Charles Willeford.

                Regarding The Shark Infested Custard, I must ask: Does the title have anything to do with the actual story? Because, going by the sypnosis I read, it looks like that answer is a “No”.

              • The title is, you might say, metaphorical. Miami is the custard, and one guess what gender the sharks are (with one exception). It’s his longest novel, and hardly his best balanced. Maybe more of an anthology. Relating to pathology. Anyway, nobody made him write it for money, and I doubt it made any. That would have made him happy. Perverse cuss that he was.

                Yeah, she’s smart about the things he’s dumb about, which is the damn shame of it. He’s making assumptions she isn’t. They balance each other out, but balance isn’t what he’s looking for. Because Willeford.

  4. Recently finished The Woman Chaser by Willeford, making it the fifth book I’ve read from him. Maybe it’s just me, but of the five I’ve read, I feel Miami Blues is the only one that’s straight up crime fiction. The others (Cockfighter, Understudy for Death, The Burnt Orange Heresy, this one) are more like literary fiction themed trojan horses with a crime novel hidden inside.

    Mild spoilers ahead:

    Overall, I…think I liked it? There are certainly positives. The prose, as always, is on point with Willeford managing to make tangents about both the film and used car industry incredibly captivating. The plot of Richard’s film subtly foreshadowing the book’s own plot was a fun touch. I’ll credit Willeford this time for I actually didn’t see most of the plot coming, nor the twists and turns it provided. And Richard Hudson is further proof (as if we needed more) that Charles Willeford is the master at crafting absolute cads for lead protagonists.

    Speaking of, I think Richard might be more unnerving than even James Figueras. Mostly because, unlike James, Richard displays a surprising number of good qualities throughout the book, which makes the rest of the time when he’s acting like a typical Charles Willeford protagonist surprisingly hard to read. The fact that he’s demonstrably capable of acting like a decent person and yet he actively chooses to act like a prick (even before his downfall) brings an uncomfortably real and human edge to his character.

    Hell, I actually felt some sympathy for him during the outcome of his film. I’m a creator myself so to see what happens, yeah, I totally understand the anger, disappointment, and devastation that Richard goes through…to a point. Because on the OTHER hand, I can’t help but feel that the film’s fate was largely his fault. Maybe he should’ve listened to the veteran editor and extended the film to 90 minutes. Or maybe he could’ve rolled with THE MAN’s plan and then build a stable career which would then potentially lead to him making films he solely wants to make (not unlike many real life superstar directors). Or maybe he should’ve tried going fully independent (That was the route Carnival of Souls took which was released two years after this book).

    Am I being a bit too harsh and judgmental? Probably. I admit I’m rather jaded to the whole “Auteur” mindset, which is absolutely what Richard was trying to be. But I get the impression that, had Richard compromised even a little, his film would probably come out fairly in tact. Of course, he’s a Charles Willeford protagonist, so he’s single minded as fuck and he’s obviously not gonna do that. And therefore, I don’t feel all that bad for him in the end.

    Of course, him being very awful to a lot of people in this story didn’t fucking help either. Laura Harmon in particular…it’s bizarre, actually. The most infuriating thing he did to her wasn’t the outbursts, the patronizing attitude, or even what he did to her at the end. No, what really made my blood boil was during the first act when he’s talking to the personnel manager who assigned her to him. Now, before Laura had stated that she did not want to be a typist, that she hated being in the typing pool. And what does Richard proceed to do, the next morning? He tells the personnel manager that Laura has to go, and he recommends putting her back in the typing pool…Like, the other stuff is bad of course (the last thing he does to her being even worse), but that moment is just unbelievably petty!

    And yet, that was the only moment to get a solid reaction out of me. The rest of the awful shit that happened didn’t really elicit anything out of me. Well, ok, when he kissed his teenaged stepsister, that made me do a double take. But then we get to what led after that and I’m…honestly not feeling anything. I’m not feeling outraged, or shock at what’s transpiring. I’m just feeling numb. And that leads to why I’m mixed on The Woman Chaser. Maybe I’ve simply built up an immunity to Willeford but this book mainly left me feeling cold and empty. Yeah, Richard does shitty things but I fully expected him to do those things. Hell, if anything, I thought the book was gonna be a lot more fucked up than it actually turned out being.

    And here’s the thing: I mentioned that Richard felt more human than characters like James Figueras or even Frank Mansfield (though, admittedly, I haven’t read Cockfighter in a long time), but he’s not as compelling as those two.

    Overall, I’m glad I read The Woman Chaser. But I don’t imagine I’ll read it again anytime soon.

    Also, how do you imagine Richard would feel about movies like Taxi Driver and Falling Down? Films that pretty much did exactly what he wanted to do with The Man Who Got Away?

    • “I think I liked it” is the correct reaction to a book like this. I’d be seriously worried if you’d said you had a wonderful time, and couldn’t wait to read it again. I’ve never read it a second time, and I don’t know as I ever will. So forgive me if I space on some plot points, even though the gory details are stuck in my head forever.

      Believe it or not, he may not be the worst of the Willeford wastrels. It’s close, but at least he does have some redeeming qualities–which somehow makes him worse, right? I mean some people just can’t help being shits, but he could have been somebody pretty amazing, personally and professionally. He just didn’t choose to be that.

      He wanted to make a movie. And he needed it to be exactly what he imagined. In his mind, he had a deal with that studio guy that it would be whatever he wanted to make. If it couldn’t be exactly that, then it couldn’t be. Period. He put all of himself into that film. Not a figure of speech. Everything he has, everything he is. It sounds like something you would want, if you were a creator of some kind, right? Is it? Something about eggs and baskets comes to mind.

      Now if you’re writing prose fiction (or poetry), you at least have total control over what you write. Nobody may publish it, but there it is, the way you wrote it. Even if some crappy publisher changed it without your permission, you’d still have the original. It’s as close to total artistic freedom as you can get. Paper and something to write with. (Or these days, a machine everybody has anyway).

      But a filmmaker–damn. Orson Welles many times lamented his choice to get into that business. It costs so much money. So many cooks to spoil the broth. It will never be exactly what you had in your head, ever. It may be more–the best directors, I think, know how to collaborate, get the best out of those they work with, and then take the bows for it (one Disney animator once reportedly said of Unca Walt, “He’s a genius at using other people’s genius.”)

      Richard, please note, serves no apprenticeship. He’s never written a screenplay before, he’s never directed before, he’s just a natural at it. But what that means is, he’s got no professional ethos. He doesn’t know the score. He’s making the rules up as he goes along. But he’s spending the studio’s money as he does it. Which means they make the rules, they own the film.

      (To this day, David Lynch can’t even watch any version of his adaptation of Dune, because he didn’t get final cut, and they just took it away from him, cut it themselves, and you really don’t want a DeLaurentis going anything related to your film other than signing the checks. I still think it’s the best adaptation anyone will ever make of an unadaptable novel, but he spent years on that–afterwards, he stayed the fuck away from big studio movies–he compromised, particularly with regards to TV, but on his own terms–you are right in saying that it doesn’t have to end like this, but Willeford is a specialist in the worst case scenario, as very often Lynch is, and I know you saw Mulholland Drive).

      You want to bet Willeford didn’t know the sad story of Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed? Sad not only because a great artist didn’t get to make exactly what he wanted (with the studio’s money). Sad because his career was ruined by his inability to compromise with Thalberg, who was a talent of a different kind. (The genius who uses other people’s genius–personally, I’m mad at him for dumbing down the Marx Brothers, defanging their anarchism, taking the obligatory romantic subplots seriously, making Groucho a nice guy for Pete’s sake–but they praised him to the skies, go figure–maybe they just figured they didn’t want to end up like Von Stroheim).

      So this is a morality play. But it’s Willeford morality, and his message is the same as in the other books we’ve discussed. It does matter to be true to yourself, your vision. You might as well be dead without that. But if you can’t bend at all, you will be broken, probably break other people along the way, if you’re strong enough.

      And Willeford isn’t just telling us this. He’s telling himself. Because he totally identifies with everything Robert does (as he does with all his other leading men). And loathes it too–he was an adolescent hobo riding the rails in the Depression. He was stationed in the Philippines in peace time. He served in WWII, fought in major battles. He did some things, and this is how he deals with it. I think Willeford knew what a conscience was, but was never quite sure he had one. (My own feeling is, if you ask the question, you probably do, but you need to keep asking, and listen hard for the answer.)

      Yeah, he’s a crime writer. I don’t know what other genre could have accommodated him. But he doesn’t write about the world of gangsters, heistmen, and only one private detective I can recall (he lifted that plot directly from a Robert Mitchum film, which only shows you how seriously he took it).

      Why is Richard like this? The narrator only gives us the facts, no interpretation. Was it the really Freudian relationship with his sexy dancer mom? The absent father? The mediocre life he suddenly felt a burning need to escape by any means necessary? Is any of this dimestore psychoanalysis convincing you? It’s not working for me.

      A man is an abyss, you get dizzy looking in. That’s the ticket. He is who he is, good and bad, the bad won. And that’s noir. Noir is crime fiction. He doesn’t murder anyone but himself–and two things he helped create.

      And numbness is pretty much what the author is going for. You had it right.

      Richard feels more real, because let’s be real–Hollywood is crammed with guys like him. To this day. (They have to hide a bit more now–though I bet after that verdict, they’re listening for the all clear). Not as uncompromising, no. Few with his potential as an artist. But personally–geez. Some of those guys would make old Rob look like an Eagle Scout.

      Willeford shares with Westlake a mingled fascination and contempt for the film industry. But they both got some money out of it. (That just made it worse).

      So anyway, cut. Did you get all that? Should we do another take?

      • I dunno, does the budget allow for a second take?

        This is a tad embarrassing, but I actually haven’t gotten around to Mulholland Dr. (and yet I’ve seen the much harder to access Inland Empire, go figure).

        I’ve also heard of the tragedy of Von Stroheim’s Greed and, kinda like Richard’s The Man Who Got Way, I’m not entirely sure I’d call it sad. I totally understand the heartbreak of having your dream tampered with but on the other hand NINE FUCKING HOURS! At a point in time where films lasting more than an hour was still fairly new. Even granting that Von Stroheim intended to screen the film roadshow style, that’s still a beyond ass numbing runtime.

        Fair enough on Willeford deserving the title of crime writer. However, I still think his work is at least unique in this regard. Whenever I’m reading say, a Jim Thompson, I can always tell I’m reading a crime book from beginning to end, from the characters to the prose to the dialogue, etc. With Willeford, it’s almost always in the last third or so that the crime aspect of his fiction really takes hold.

        • Budget here wouldn’t allow for a first one, but in our Inland Empire of the mind, we may imagine whatever we please. I really would recommend Mulholland Drive, particularly if you can catch a big screen revival. I will never stop mourning the time, visiting that part of my family that migrated to South Carolina that I failed to catch it a second time. Savannah GA is nearby. I was walking in that moody meandering burg, and saw that a lovely old theater–the Lucas, 1920’s vintage, does a mixture of old movies and performing arts–was going to screen Mr. Lynch’s horror/noir masterpiece. (That’s how I see it, anyway). But not right at that moment. And I could not for the life of me finagle getting there at the right time. Ah well. I should try to see Inland Empire again while it’s in theaters. It meanders perhaps a tad too much, but when it finally gets to the point…….

          I think Von Stroheim pushed his luck too far, for sure–I also think Thalberg could have handled him more diplomatically, and tried to preserve the edited footage for future generations. But that’s just not the nature of that kind of beast. One had to get exactly the effect he wanted. The other had to get the movies made on time, on budget, and on point. (One time Von Stroheim tried to explain that this character in a film Thalberg was complaining about had a foot fetish. Thalberg responded “You have a footage fetish.”)

          You’re talking about two Jews, one from Vienna, the other born in Brooklyn, of German parentage–and they might as well have originated from different dimensions. No comprehension at all, on either side. And that is, in effect, what goes on between Richard and his studio head, neither of whom seems to be Jewish (‘The Man’ has no ethnicity, in any time or place), they’re both from middle class middle American backgrounds one would surmise, but again–no comprehension. And before we put it all on Richard’s intransigence, remember he did put up his own money to help make the film. The Man may not be a total bastard, but bastard he is, all the same. It’s not a nine hour adaptation of a bleak Naturalist novel. And these days, the scene they want cut would be considered very weak tea. We are by no means supposed to think all of this is Richard’s fault. Just what he does to himself and to people who had done him no harm.

          Willeford is truly hard to categorize, and I think he liked it that way. The others on this list of literary misfits I compiled sometimes wrote books that didn’t fit their literary ghetto very well–some started out as ‘serious writers’–but they liked playing with the genre tropes, and did it well. Willeford always felt disdain for anything expected of him as a storyteller, and would go out of his way to shit all over it. His one western novel is a rewrite of an earlier one (that Westlake specifically mentioned admiring), and a more anti-romantic take on the old west could not be found anywhere. Except maybe in a Corbucci film. No, even that would be glamorous, and the women way hotter, being Italian and all.

          I guess he ended up there because he had nowhere else to go. It’s a bit like the folk tales you sometimes read about the vile conniving trickster who was so mean, even hell wouldn’t take him. But crime fiction will take anybody. Which I suppose is one reason we like it. 😉

          • While we’re on the subject–why is this book still called The Woman Chaser? Willeford’s original title was The Director. As happened so many times, the publisher insisted on changing it to something that would resonate with the sleaze audience, and yes, the book is about a sleazy guy who does sleazy things, but it ain’t sleaze.

            He’s also not all that interested in chasing women. He’s chasing artistic fulfillment and immortality, and fails to catch them. Two different women chase him, and end up wishing they hadn’t.

            And yet that’s still the title. Okay, The Director is a bit generic. And the 1999 movie went with the publisher’s title, increasing the motivation of anybody reprinting it to stick with that (I’m amazed The Hunter and The Seventh are still called that–the Gold Medal reprints went with the movie titles).

            But the title doesn’t match the book. At all. Well, I guess that fits the overall theme, at least–you have a vision. The money people could care less. And I guess to this day, people are more likely to read a book called The Woman Chaser than The Director.

            I still don’t like it.

            Btw, did you know Westlake’s original title for The Man With the Getaway Face was The Mask? That would have been confusing after 1994. But Westlake’s original title is still more evocative of what the book is saying. Parker was never not wearing a mask. Even before the surgery. You do not want to be around on the rare occasions he takes the mask off. Like The Phantom of the Opera, only much much worse.

            • I own the Criterion Collection blu-ray of Mulholland Dr. so it’s really just a matter of me getting off my ass and actually watching it. Though, if you’re in a mood for MORE horror/noir, I just recently watched David Cronenberg’s new film Crimes of the Future (no relation to the original short he did back in the 70’s), very much him in top form and it’s surprisingly noirish. Inland Empire…wasn’t my favorite. It had the lovely Laura Dern as the lead which I will always appreciate. But otherwise, it just feels like a bunch of disparate home videos that were made as an excuse for David Lynch to play around with his new camera…because that’s exactly what it was.

              I’ll push back slightly on the idea that Thalberg could’ve preserved the deleted footage for future generations. I mean, I AGREE with that statement, but the fact is that film preservation is a relatively new concept. For too long, film was considered a novelty, simple minded fare that was meant to divert the audience for a certain amount of time. This apathy regarding film is why we no longer have a significant portion of the silent era. So yeah, I don’t think keeping the deleted footage was a realistic option for the time period.

              I feel I should clarify that I don’t think the situation was entirely Richard’s fault. The Man and Leo were clearly hiding their true intentions for the project, and Richard even states that he would’ve formatted the film to fit better with their vision had they just told him from the beginning (Though I am a bit confused on the timeline, here. Was this their entire plan from the start of production? Or was it a consequence of watching the final product?). That being said, I still think Richard had a larger role to play in the film’s final fate than he’d like to think. Also, iirc, the reason the cuts were being demanded were more out of pragmatism than moral panic.

              The numbness I described feeling about the book and the fact that it was intended by Willeford…I don’t know how to feel about that. Recently I’ve been rereading The Grifters by Jim Thompson (For absolutely no reason whatsoever, certainly nothing to do with an article that may or may not be on this blog 😉 ), and while it’s still not my favorite Thompson, I FELT things. I felt sad and contemplative when Moira mused about hoping the Farmer was dead, for that was the best fate she could give to a man she loved so much. I felt invested with Roy developing his l33t grifting skillz and how he evolved from an amateur to a pro. The fucking emotional rollercoaster that was Bo’s torture of Lilly!

              I may discuss this in more detail at a later date (………. 😉 ), but for now, my main point is that The Grifters is a very empathetic novel, in ways that The Woman Chaser just isn’t. And yeah, that’s most likely the point, but I still find myself leaning more to Thompson’s novel than I do Willeford’s. Especially since Thompson is still able to weave a cynical, gritty, tale in spite of being more empathetic.

              Finally, regarding the title debacle, I’m personally surprising neither party suggested naming the book The Man Who Got Away, in reference to the film itself. It’s more descriptive than The Director, and it still fits the book like a glove.

              Also, I did indeed know about the original title for The Man With The Getaway Face. I found out on the comments section for that review, actually. And yeah, while the final title has it’s charm, I prefer the original.

              • I know nobody back then was thinking about preserving films, and particularly on nitrate stock. Nobody was thinking of any film as this immortal work of art that had to be saved for posterity. It was a guy named Raymond Rohauer who we owe for most of Keaton’s oeuvre being preserved–and what I’ve read about him sounds like he’d have been an ideal Willeford protagonist. A useful a-hole, and yes, they do exist.

                But anyway, for the purposes of our present conversation, it’s moot, because the director in question intentionally burns his movie, along with a lot of other movies. (Thinking back to the previous novel we discussed, Willeford had a decidedly incendiary approach to the visual arts). You’re probably right that had he not felt he had a deal to get precisely the movie he wanted, he wouldn’t have overreacted so badly. I have, at times, blown my top when I felt I had an implicit understanding with someone, and they turned out to have a different understanding. But I contented myself with a few angry emails. As I get older, I get more philosophical about human nature. But Richard is still a young man, and in his own twisted way, an idealistic one. And he chooses to work in films. How do you write a happy ending for that? (Oh right, there was that Kevin Bacon movie. What was it called again? Hasn’t been on cable in ages.)

                The Grifters is a superior book to this–that’s a tragedy. Because he didn’t choose to go out that way. He made a choice for the better, and circumstances overruled him. In the worst possible way. And as I said in my review of Westlake’s superb adaptation, the book still comes out ahead, because you just couldn’t do that in a movie, at least not one made for a mass audience. That final bit of gloating over a rivalry resolved. Jesus.

                Thompson at his best (I think The Grifters is his best book)–also Thompson at his worst–horrifying. But you’re always supposed to feel it. No nihilist, he. Was Willeford? I don’t think there’s any philosophical niche that fits him. Thompson had a very hard youth as well, but he didn’t serve in either world war. He fought on a different battlefield. Willeford wasn’t a sociopath, IMHO–but only by dint of being too self-aware to let himself get sucked down that hole in the soul. He still felt the gravitational pull, probably his entire life. He talks in one of his two memoirs about how he wanted to get out of the Philippines, because he was worried about losing his sensitivity. After what he’s just described, and given the fiction he went on to write, you wonder what he thinks that word means, but it means something to him.

                This is not tragedy, but really dark farce. You are not supposed to shed a single tear. Forget it Jake, it’s Tinseltown.

              • “[Willeford’s] one western novel is a rewrite of an earlier one (that Westlake specifically mentioned admiring), and a more anti-romantic take on the old west could not be found anywhere.”

                It’s a couple days late but I’m curious of your opinion on works like Blood Meridian or Unforgiven? If you’ve seen/watched them of course.(That’s right, boys. She dabbles in Westerns, too. 😉 )

              • Do not know Blood Meridian. I’ve seen Unforgiven. Went to see that when it came out, with my dad. It’s not a favorite of mine, but I get what it’s aiming at. I like the exchange at the end–“I don’t deserve this.” “That’s got nothing to do with it.” Quite so. To quote Heine–

                But war and justice have far different laws,
                And worthless acts are often done right well;
                The rascals’ shots were better than their cause,
                And I was hit–and hit again, and fell!

                What’s a bit jarring is to watch an angry mob lynch a black man, and never once use a racial epithet. My dad and I agreed that was weird–like they’re murdering him politely. I guess there was no good answer to that conundrum at the time. I mean, the n-word is racist. We can’t have that. But we can have all the things behind it. Just don’t use any bad language.

                Later, Tarantino cut that Gordian knot with Django and The Hateful 8–the answer, turns out, is that the main protagonist in a big budget western doesn’t have to be a white guy. And there don’t necessarily have to be any heroes. Mind you, the Italians figured that last part out decades before, not to mention Peckinpah, but that’s who Tarantino was riffing on. The point is, don’t worry about nice manners so much when you’re dealing with human evil. I guess I just feel like the point of every Eastwood movie where he’s the star is that he’s the toughest hombre there is, but then I remember he was in the army during the Korean War–as a swimming instructor. In California. And we know where the Duke was during WWII (to be clear, I admire them both as actors–as men? Eh. I think they were both trapped between who they really were and who people needed them to be.)

                I watch a fair few westerns, theatrical and TV. Ranging from the silent era to the present day. (My partner and I are Gunsmoke addicts). I do not read many western novels. It’s a very conservative genre, and I don’t mean politically (though that too, much of the time). There’s only so much you can do with the written form without ruining it (to be clear, if it doesn’t take place between the Civil War and the Spanish American War, I don’t consider it a western). Here and there, I read one that sticks with me. The Difference is one of those.

                Maybe this is why I never get around to reading Elmore Leonard. I identify him with westerns, even though he wrote a lot more crime fiction. I did like Justified. But geez, that’s not even set in the west! At least a six hour drive east of the Mississippi. What’s he wearing that hat for? Deadwood was a favorite of mine in season one, but it got weaker every season after, culminating in a pointless TV movie that ruined all the characters beyond repair. (The ones Milch hadn’t ruined already.)

                1883 was a treat, and thank GOD that was a one and done, or Sheridan probably would have ruined it too. Though the guy has brains, give him that. He knew very well that the trick was to tell a complete story before people made up their minds how it should end, and then blamed him for not ending it that way. Don’t give them too much time to think about it. That was a western in the most classic sense. And still very conservative, but conservatism works, as long as you pick the right things to conserve.

                Sorry you asked?


  5. Warning, spoilers for The Shark Infested Custard! You have been warned!

    So there’s a scene where Hank goes to a porno theater to apprehend a man who’s been trying to kill him. The theater has two features, and they are about an hour long, each. Somewhere, in a rotting prison cell in California, Richard Hudson suddenly felt extremely pissed and he couldn’t pinpoint why.

    Anyway, The Shark Infested Custard! The Shark Infested Custard…hmm. I think of all the Willefords I’ve read, this is the one I have trouble defining my feelings on the most. On the one hand, there are chapters and scenes here that rank far above the other books, this book contains some of my favorite bits of writing that Willeford has ever done. For example, the timeskip passages where we find out how the lives of these characters progressed (or regressed in some instances) was really engaging. I loved the scene where Hank visited his old law professor, really fascinating character. The anecdote about trying to sue his parents for unwilling circumcision also stuck out to me, mostly for the fact that it showed how a lot of politcal talking points I thought were fairly new have actually been around for much longer. Another scene like that was when Hank purchased a pistol at a gun shop and it came gifted with a bumper sticker that gave out the old “If guns are banned, then only the bad guys will be armed”…in a book originally written in 1975. Time really is a circle jerk sometimes.

    The characters were interesting and fairly well developed. They’re all scumbags to a certain degree (some more than others), and yet they all have their moments of compassion and humanity. For example, I thought Hank was a fucking dick for most of the book. Pretending he’ll cover for Larry only to tell Jannaire the truth when Larry leaves, promising to analyze the contents of a purse for Eddie only to throw that list away when Jannaire comes a knocking, oh yeah and also picking up a fucking thirteen old to prove to the guys he could score at a drive in (I mean, he doesn’t go through with it but Jesus fuck), yeah this guy’s a piece of work. And yet, in one small moment, Hank surprised me. The opening of Eddie and Don’s part is a letter Hank sent to Eddie, and along with it is a report of the contents of Gladys’ bag. It wasn’t enough to balance the other shitty things he did, but that he actually got around to analyzing Eddie’s list jumped out at me. The same goes for Larry and Eddie. They’re often selfish dirtbags and they more often than pull dick moves on each other…until the time comes when they actually do look out for each other.

    Don, however, can go fuck himself. When I read what he did to his daughter Marie, I felt blistering fury. Yes, this affected me even more than the actual murder and crime happening here. That stuff is expected, I mean, yeah, crime novel. But the level of spite, and downright emotional ahuse Don pulls really made my blood boil. Telling your own child that you supposedly love (I think it’s less he loved her and more that he felt Maria was the one thing in his life he owned while Clara owned eveeything else) “You’re never seeing me again. This is your fault. Bye bitch.”, that just….Oooooh! I have to give credit to Willeford for getting such a visceral reaction out of me.

    As for the woman who apparently is a real bitch…You’re talking about Jannaire, right? If you are, then, well, I think she’s more grief stricken than an outright bitch. I mean, ok, she wants to get Hank killed over a percieved wrong and she certainly leads him on but she ultimately chooses to have Hank run out of town rather than have him killed. Also, Hank killed the guy who was hired to scare him off. Self defense, sure, but that kinda puts Hank and Jannaire more or less on even footing, doesn’t it?

    But now we get to the negatives. It’s been said that publishers rejected The Shark Infested Custard because it was too depressing. An equally likely reason could be that it’s really aimless. You had it right when you said that this feels more like a series of vignettes than an actual narrative. I’d also add that there’s a lot of tangents the book goes on that don’t add much to the story or characters. The opening segment of the book only connects at the very end, as a sort of book end. And it kinda feels like Willeford made it a bookend to make the opening scene have any connection to the rest of the book. But yeah, overall, the thing that’s holding The Shark Infested Custard back from being my favorite Willeford is the disjointed narrative. It’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of really good stuff in here.

    • I’ve never read anything else quite like it, and it definitely isn’t one of his more focused efforts, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. It’s in a sort of odd genre of its own–a group of people living in a city, encountering various situations there, together and separately, as they drift along, and it’s really the city itself that’s the protagonist. Only this city is Miami, and I told you how Willeford loved and loathed that town. There were things he couldn’t say about it just with Hoke Moseley, good as those books are. (I recall a brief echo of Hoke’s unacknowledged attraction to a Cubana he works with on the force in the character who wishes he could settle down with this other Cubana, who truly loves him, but it’s never going to work out, because the only thing he’s good at is being unhappy).

      I’m sure Amistead Maupin was more polished about it (never got to those novellas), and San Francisco far more genteel when Hammett isn’t writing about it–but if polished and genteel was what I was looking for, why would I read Charles Willeford?

      Jannaire has decided somebody has to pay for what was done to her friend, and she doesn’t much care which guy it is, so long as it’s a guy and he knew her(biblically, I mean). He couldn’t possibly have impregnated this woman, but Jannaire knows he would have done the same thing if he had, so good enough. She sentences him to hell. Aka Chicago. And his pod of killer males follows him there. (The Shark-Infested Chowder? No, that would be Boston. The Shark-infested Deep Dish Pizza? Too busy.)

      It’s the way some cops think–“If I sent him up for something he didn’t do, that just makes up for all the other things he got away with.” Is she wrong? Point is, she could only get at him because she got to him. He was looking for some strange, and he found it. Sometimes our weaknesses are bound up in our strengths.

      I wish I could remember all these plot twists you enjoyed. It’s been a while. This probably speaks to the problem you describe, the very loose-jointed structure of the book, that is going to make it harder to keep it all in mind, well after reading it.

      There’s going to be at least one image in there that never leaves you, and for me it’s the poor black girl they’ve ‘adopted’ peeing herself in terror as they laugh uproariously over the death of a friend. And they just laugh harder. And she just prays she doesn’t end up another casualty.


      That scene is important because it’s the first time in the book we really see them, collectively, from an outside perspective. They aren’t serial killers, gangsters, or even Republicans. They’re just guys trying to have a good time together, getting each other in and out of trouble, and sometimes the trouble is really troubling. So that’s to remind us that however normal it may seem to them, it’s not. It’s not unusual, but it’s sure as hell not normal. You can take the boy out of Miami–

      That scene is a good personality test. If a guy reads that scene and laughs out loud himself–without irony or self-understanding–get the fuck out of there. Well, that’s not a very practical test, given the length of the book. Would any of these guys have kept reading that long?

      What a man’s reaction should be is “This is how women feel around us sometimes? Like we’re a pack of killer apes they have to live around all the time, never knowing if we’ll take care of them or–you know–take care of them?”

      Willeford. :\

      Once you’ve read that one, you are a Willeford reader in the fullest sense. Almost an initiation ritual. Welcome to the club. 😉

      • Ah, THAT’S why I was a bit more neutral to Jannaire. I happen to quite like Chicago! *rimshot*

        The sad thing is, I felt rather numb to the ending. I didn’t laugh or the like, obviously, but, well, it didn’t stand out for me like it dod, you. I didn’t even catch the racial ramifications when I first read it. I think I’ve been reading Willeford too long :S

        • I find him less debilitating than Highsmith (Highsmith protagonists not named Ripley are almost invariably doomed), but a break from him might well be in order.

          The point isn’t whether you or I like Chicago–I’ve never been, but I’ve heard good things. Dortmunder thinks it’s almost a city. High praise indeed.

          The point is that he’s found his bliss in Miami. He’s adapted to it. He’s convinced the winters in Chicago will lead to an early death, and just him believing that could make it true. You can argue that the ending proves Jannaire’s revenge is not so sweet after all, that he’s managed to re-adapt, and there’s sharks in every custard. How did Milton put it?

          “Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,”
          Said then the lost Archangel, “this the seat
          That we must change for Heaven?—this mournful gloom
          For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
          Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid
          What shall be right: farthest from him is best
          Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
          Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,
          Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
          Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
          Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
          A mind not to be changed by place or time.
          The mind is its own place, and in itself
          Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

          Personally, I’d sooner room with Old Scratch and his demonic cohorts than move to Florida, unless maybe it was the Keys. (Which are getting less habitable by the day, thanks to rising sea levels). Based on my experience, Florida in July makes Hell feel like Chicago in February. I’d take Chicago over Miami in a New York minute, but since all my minutes are New York, and I’ve got rent control, I’ll stick out our latest decline in population. Some people just can’t handle Gotham in all her glory. Dabblers. Dilettantes. Deserters. Defectors. Feh.

  6. There’s a movie I re-watched in theaters a couple months ago, Michael Mann’s Thief.

    It’s a hell of a movie (Even more hell of a theatrical debut) that’s often been described as one of the best Richard Stark adaptations (if not the best) not actually adapted from a Stark. I agree with that statement but it’s not why I brought the film up here.

    Having re-watched it again, I realized something I hadn’t noticed before. The world and setup of this film is very Richard Stark, but the protagonist Frank (one of James Caan’s best performances)? That guy walked straight out of a Charles Willeford novel. He’s single minded to an almost hazardous degree and he won’t compromise for shit…to his own detriment. But it’s the ending that really solidified this for me.

    I’m sure you’ve already watched this before but just in case you haven’t, I’m sure “A Charles Willeford character operating in a Richard Stark world” is enough of a recommendation. 😉

    • I know of the film, I even remember it coming out, but somehow I’ve never seen it. I’ll keep an eye out for the next time it shows up on TV. Not available on Amazon Prime Video. (No movie or show I want to watch is ever available on Amazon Prime Video, at least not for free, so what am I paying for? Oh right, free two day shipping.)

      Compromise really is the issue with most if not all of Willeford’s protagonists. “We’ll do it my way or not at all.” But as we’ve discussed, his favorite of all his books is Cockfighter, where the protagonist does learn to bend a bit without breaking–giving up one non-negotiable principle after another. He will work with a partner–even learn from him, get to like him. He will finally accept the beautiful young blonde he has loved and idealized all his life , who he has long believed he can’t live without, can never accept him as he is, or even make any effort to understand him. He’s met a lovely brunette widow of means who likes him for what he is, will happily share (and underwrite) his peripatetic existence–if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one who’ll be with you.

      My significant other (who is a mite older than me, and a brunette, and maybe you know how brunettes are about blondes?) really liked this. And she doesn’t even want to hurt a mouse. Sometimes she leaves food out for them. That’s not the point of anything. She’s an artist, and she understands that it’s hard to be different. She can be as stubborn in her own ways as any Willeford anti-hero. She still knows sometimes you have to compromise a bit in order to survive and enjoy life while you have it.

      They made a movie of that book, Willeford adapted his novel (to the studio’s liking, one must assume), was there to observe production, and leaving aside Warren Oates in his late 40’s looks nothing like the big handsome blonde of the novel (patterned after Willeford himself as a young man), most of the best parts of the book aren’t there.

      The basic theme–“Be true to who you are, but learn how to give a little in order to get what you really need”–not there. The ending, where his girl walks away from him is tragic, not triumphant. The side-bet, as I think of it–where he invites both women to the tournament, just so he can compare their reactions to his greatest professional triumph–gone. Because that would be legitimizing him, saying he really is the hero of his own life, repulsed as you may be by some of his choices. And clearly the director, Monte Hellman, didn’t want to do that. Directors rule in movies, always. Writers are cattle.

      And my feeling is, that’s the biggest compromise Willeford ever made in his writing career. (And one reason why Westlake refused to ever adapt his own work to the screen). It’s one thing to sell your babies, another to break them. But all this happened after Willeford wrote The Woman Chaser, right? He knew that would happen. They made a movie of that one after he was dead. Haven’t seen that either. Do I want to know how close they got? I must say, they nailed casting the lead with Warburton. How often does that happen? They didn’t do so badly with Miami Blues either. But that also came out after Willeford was dead. Hmm.

      You going to give any of my other literary misfits a whirl?

      • Jesus Christ, how many times are Amazon gonna keep putting Thief on and yanking it off Prime? That’s like the second or third time they’ve done that.

        Anyway, would you believe the only author from this list I haven’t read yet is Patricia Highsmith? And before I started commenting here, to boot. I’ve read A Rage in Harlem from Himes and The Wounded and the Slain from Goodis. I meant to read the rest of Himes’ Harlem Detective series but this was during the “Local Library” era of my life where I…well, relied on my local library to read books I was interested in.

        A Rage in Harlem was damn good, with a lightning fast pace to it that I really dug.

        And yeah, I really enjoyed The Wounded and the Slain too. It had a surprisingly sweet outcome from what I remembered.

        As you might be able to tell, it’s been a while since I’ve read these books. 😛

  7. A Rage in Harlem (which I prefer to think of as For the Love of Imabelle), is a good opening to one of the greatest series in the history of fiction, but I prefer all the subsequent books (where Gravedigger and Coffin Ed are more front and center–still haven’t read the unpublished Plan B, with its very dark ending to the saga). I really should finish reading his other books–I did find some interesting moments in Run Man, Run. A very contemporary feel to that one, about a corrupt crazy cop trying his best to murder a young black man, the only witness to his murder of several innocent black people, over a misunderstanding. (The cop is the most interesting character, and we spend a lot of time in his mixed-up head. Himes can be very perverse. Which is why he belongs in this group I’ve assembled.)

    The Wounded and the Slain is very atypical Goodis, and I had a hard time getting into it. It’s not what I’d call crime fiction proper, more like social drama with a noir slant. Which could work, but I didn’t quite feel that it did. He can be very hit or miss, but when he hits the target, it’s dead center. I often think he didn’t really want to be a crime fiction author–neither did Himes–but what we aspire to be and who we are–not always the same thing.

    Street of No Return is one of my favorites of his, because of its oddly upbeat ending–in the gutter. Which seems to be where Goodis felt most comfortable. Nowhere to go but up, right? Well…..

    (Yes, I’m thinking about tomorrow. And subsequent days….)

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