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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.