Madness in the 20th Century
By Mike White
"That's silly. Superego is only a jargon word for 'conscience,' and everybody's got a conscience."
"Have it your way, Bernice."
- The Burnt Orange Heresy
While I could bemoan the shabby treatment that Charles Willeford has received by his peers, lament the unavailability of his work in one's local bookstore, or herald the coming of a new era in which Willeford will attain the attention he deserves, I won't. That would be unfair and overly idealistic. The time has not yet arrived for Charles Willeford. I fear that it never will.
Charles Willeford's books are unpleasant ventures past the veneer of "modern life". The cop, the critic, the soldier, the writer, the director, the priest, the short-order cook, the artist, the cockfighter, the used-car salesman; he showed their dirty little secrets and big ones too. He did so with even-handed, well-mannered, eloquent prose.
Reading about the gritty lives of his protagonists, one can't help but be impressed by his polished love of language. His well-chosen words hit like a heavy fist in the gut while being unadorned by baroque turns of phrase. Along with the often hardboiled narratives was an element of dark humour that made Willeford's works unique. Even when presenting rough-and-tumble narratives, there was a glimmer of crazed glee behind the Willeford poker face.
It's dubious that Charles Willeford's name will ever become household. Yet, lovers of quirky, engrossing literature should continue to seek out Willeford's work and embrace it. His voice is true, steady, and unequivocally American.
- High Priest of California
Willeford's work is delightfully unsettling. Usually writing from a first-person point of view, Willeford has his readers often identifying with sociopaths like Russell Haxby, a used car salesman obsessed with a married woman, in High Priest of California. More than bedding the gal, Haxby is trying to determine "if she was really mysterious, or just plain stupid." As evidenced by the above, Haxby also has a penchant for random acts of violence to sooth his savage soul.
Willeford challenges the reader to determine if the protagonist of the book is clever or just plain crazy. Willeford's characters are not murderous psychopaths who drool at the thought of spilling blood nor are they petty thieves who cut corners in order to make a buck. No, they fit in society easily enough and function with relative ease. That's the scary part.
Often Willeford's protagonists don't even realize that they're off-kilter. They take what's given to them with natural aplomb. For example, in Willeford's short story "Some Lucky License" (found in Everybody's Metamorphosis), police Sergeant Bill Hartigan finds himself penalized under Section 1277 of the Criminal Code which states that "any police officer who fatally shoots six persons-in the line of duty or no-will be separated from the force, and will not be reinstated." This section is known unofficially among policemen as the 'trigger happy' rule."
Instead of being tossed off the force some political strings are pulled and Hartigan is reassigned as an unnecessary guard in a low security prison. Upon learning of an escape plot, Hartigan determines apprehending the culprit will allow him to be reinstated on the force as a hero.
Waiting in the dark for the prisoner to make his way down the prison wall, Hartigan realizes that what he enjoys most about police work is having a shooting license. "I wanted to shoot and kill men," Hartigan thinks to himself. And why not? "Why should I wait for someone else at a later date? Sooner or later I was going to get a sixth victim anyway."
Willeford learned during his days in the Army that too many men gained an affinity towards cold-blooded murder. "Tankers I knew used to swap bottles of liquor in exchange for prisoners, and then just shoot 'em for fun...I used to wonder, 'What's gonna happen to these guys when they get back into civilian life?'" These men and their carefree attitude about killing helped populate Willeford's fiction.
Even when a Willefordian character doesn't have a penchant for bloodshed, they're not presented as being entirely stable. Take, for example, "the Hoke Moseley books"-named after the cantankerous police detective.
His novels often closed with a morality that felt forced. His protagonists were caught, killed, or institutionalized for their misdeeds. However, this changed in 1984 with the release of Miami Blues-wherein Willeford employed a third-person narration and two protagonists, the psychotic Freddy J. Frenger Junior and the man on his trail, Hoke Moseley. Willeford had used this technique a few years prior in his fictionalized recount of "Son of Sam," Off the Wall (see page 67).
Having written for over forty years, Willeford finally attained popular praise with Miami Blues. Suddenly there became a demand for another Willeford novel starring the ornery toothless detective, Moseley. Willeford didn't want to become beholden to maintaining a series, yet, this prospect also presented an interesting challenge. Willeford knew "the rules" of the detective series from teaching them at the University of Miami and here was an opportunity to break every one of them. This possibility and Willeford's popularity helped him relent-to a certain extent.
An early draft for the second book in the Moseley series, New Hope for the Dead, is commonly known as "The Grimhaven Manuscript." Herein we witness Hoke burnt-out from his job as a homicide detective. He begins a quest for "absolutely nothing" and determines that this may best be attained through killing off his ex-wife and two daughters. Needless to say, Willeford's publisher refused the draft. The second (and successful) stab at the sequel, New Hope for the Dead, stands as not only the best of the Moseley books but of Willeford's oeuvre.
He stayed true to this idea of Hoke enjoying inner silence courtesy of synaptic misfires in the third Moseley book, Sideswipe, in which Hoke has a complete nervous breakdown by page thirteen. Balancing the story of the less-than-stable Hoke is the parallel tale of Troy Louden, which was reworked from Willeford's 1962 work, No Experience Necessary. Willeford would write a fourth Moseley book, The Way We Die Now, before his death in 1988.
'Not enough friction there for me,' he said. 'I'm used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?'
'No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much. I just can't do it.'
'You should learn to take it in the ass. You'll make more money.'"
- Miami Blues
Willeford's world was not limited to historical events; his books weren't world-spanning epics. America was Willeford's playing field and his predominant theme was the madness that plagued the post-war nation. They were usually first-person accounts of men dealing with their private worlds and obsessions.
As ambitious as a writer as Willeford was, when becoming familiar with his bibliography, one can't help but sense the uncanny reoccurrence of phrases, names, and themes. Wallets are made of ostrich skin. Men wear gabardine suits. Telephones are not hung up; rather, they're "racked." Cigarettes are never lit, they're "lighted." Protagonists often bare the name Richard Hudson, Russell Haxby, or some variation of Jacob Blake. It's not unusual for a Willefordian protagonist to shower with the water as hot as they can stand it: as if trying to rid themselves of their dirty tendencies, or the filth of the world, via this ritual.
The music to which his characters moved was also born of the crazed twentieth century. The challenging compositions of Bela Bartok are frequently among the pages of Willeford's work. When Richard Hudson of The Woman Chaser finds his artistic calling it's while exerting himself to Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin". This is the same music to which Russell Haxby reads T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" in High Priest of California (right before donning a blue gabardine suit). Additionally, note that it is Eliot who inspires Hudson before bedding his formerly chaste assistant in The Woman Chaser.
Along with this appreciation of a modern composer, Willeford's formal schooling in art was apparent in his works. Willeford often cited artists of this century's art movements such as Chagall, Klee, and Kandinsky. From the dealer in Wild Wives to the collector in Sideswipe to the student in Lust is a Woman, to the failed painters of Pick-Up and No Experience Necessary/Sideswipe, art often played a major role in Willeford's work.
Art was the central theme of The Burnt Orange Heresy wherein art critic Jamie Figueras (another popular Willeford moniker) scores a once-in-a-lifetime interview with the father of Nihilistic Surrealism. The price for the exclusive privilege is having to steal one of the elusive "great master's" paintings.
More than the occasional mention of waking up at 6 A.M. or an errant copy of Heidi laying around, of all of Willeford's themes and motifs the one that flourished late in his career-especially in his Hoke Moseley books-was the practice of anal sex. Willeford had a number of instances in the Moseley books of characters taking "the road less traveled." Along with Freddy Frenger (see above) putting a can of Crisco to good use in Miami Blues, Hoke attempts to indulge in some assplay with a murderess in New Hope for the Dead and has the sanctity of his bunghole threatened in The Way We Die Now. This most likely sprang from Willeford's experiences during his years in the service with Filipina prostitutes who stayed "good catholic girls"-protecting their hymens by selling their keisters.
- Something About A Soldier
Orphaned at eight, Charles Willeford was raised by his grand mother in Los Angeles. Growing into the Great Depression, Willeford left home as a young teen and spent his youth as a hobo, riding the rails and wondering where his next meal was going to come from. He learned the art of story telling in railroad jungles and Hoovervilles of the Southwest US and found that a properly told tale could help him bum money and food. These days of living by his wits also aided in forming Willeford's unique work ethic.
Unable (or unwilling) to find proper work by the age of sixteen, Willeford lied about his age and entered the service. I Was Looking for a Street chronicles these days on the road while Willeford's Something About a Soldier is an account of his days in the military. Throughout Soldier, Willeford jockeys for positions in the service that require the least work for the best pay. In other words, Willeford was an ideal slacker.
Even in his post-Armed Services life-beginning in 1956-Willeford was highly concerned about the number of hours he had to work. He enjoyed a post as the Associate Editor at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and boasted about only having to work fifteen hours a week. Eventually, he was wooed away from this position to a job where he was promised a twelve-hour workweek: serving as a professor at the University of Miami.
This is not to say that Willeford was lazy. The less he had to work, the more time he had for writing. Likewise, the commonalties in his oeuvre don't reflect a penchant for redundancy. Rather, Willeford is more of a perfectionist. He would retool his ideas, sometimes growing them from asides to short stories, lean books, or possibly magnum opera. Willeford would take incidents from his life and either weave them into his fiction or use them as a jumping off point for a story or book. For example, "Jake's Journal" (one of the stories found in The Machine in Ward Eleven) contains many passages that would later be found, nearly intact, in Something About a Soldier.
Some critics of Alfred Hitchcock contend that he was content to make the same "man on the run" film repeatedly throughout his career. And, likewise, some could say that Willeford tread familiar waters with his tales often finding voice from a maladjusted male protagonist who might mention murder as casually as a tweed coat. Upon closer examination, however, there is no such animal as a "typical Charles Willeford novel." Even when dealing with protagonists of the same profession (writers, police officers and used car salesmen), Willeford placed them in disparate contexts.
Likewise, Willeford was not content to keep to fiction. In addition to the aforementioned autobiographies, Willeford also recounted significant incidents in his life such as the adaptation and filming of his novel, Cockfighter in Cockfighter Journal or his hemorrhoid operation in A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided.
Willeford also wrote nonfictional literary and social critiques, a good number of which are collected in Writing and Other Blood Sports. Willeford was a scholar of writing. In addition to his love of words and diction, Willeford was a student of the writing process. Willeford has written about the importance of a proper photographer for one's dustjacket ("What Book Covers Tell You"), the merits and pitfalls of book dedications ("A Matter of Dedication"), and of the significance of how large one's name is in comparison to the title of one's book ("The Name Above the Title").
Willeford has frequently written ruminations about his strong opinions regarding book titles. The author penned "The Trouble with Titles" in a 1958 issue of Writer's Digest where he wrote, "I have always been fond of titles with a double meaning. For the first time in my life I had an idea for a private eye novel. I wrote it and I was proud of it, chiefly because I had never written anything like it before. The manuscript, however, remained on my desk while I racked my mind for the perfect title. After two weeks I finally got it. 'Death Finds a Lover!' I typed a cover page and mailed the novel to my publisher. That's right, you guessed it. The title was changed by the publisher and issued as 'Wild Wives.' No. I don't know why."
In "What Book Covers Tell You," Willeford discusses the profitability of longer titles, "Perhaps the only valid clue in the title as to the readability of a novel is the word count. A two-word title usually indicates that this will be a better book than a novel with one-word title, and a four-word title better than one with three words. But there are too many exceptions to make this rule infallible." Practicing what he preached, Willeford often aimed for four to six word titles: The Machine In Ward Eleven, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Nothing Under the Sun (released as No Experience Necessary), The Black Mass of Brother Springer (originally released as Honey Gal), Until I Am Dead (released as Pick-up), Deliver Me from Dallas! (released as The Whip Hand), and The Man Who Got Away (which ended up being The Woman Chaser), to name a few.
Willeford was said to have bandied about the titles Kiss Your Ass Good-bye, and The Shark Infested Custard for a handful of his books until they finally found homes among Willeford's bibliography. Kiss Your Ass Good-bye and the short story "Strange" (found in Everybody's Metamorphoses) were recombined and expanded upon in The Shark Infested Custard, posthumously published in 1993. Oddly, the one apparent time the Willeford desired a two-word title was for his western novel (written under the name Will Charles), The Difference, which was originally published as The Hombre from Sonora.
- The Woman Chaser
During his time in the service, Willeford found time to polish his abilities as a poet (among his first published works was a collection of poetry, Proletarian Laughter). Additionally, he began to hone his skills at writing dialogue and suspense by penning a story for Armed Forces Radio, "The Machine In Ward Eleven." He also wrote a weekly radio serial, "The Story of Mrs. Miller" where Willeford began sharpening his acting chops by playing a doctor in the series. He was in several plays while with the occupation army in Japan. Back stateside, he was active in Community Theater in Santa Barbara and West Palm Beach throughout the 50's and 60's.
The show business in his blood became a frequent theme in his work. From thoughts on script writing ("Why Write for Television" from Writing and Other Blood Sports), to acting ("An Actor Prepares" from Everybody's Metamorphosis) to directing ("The Machine in Ward Eleven" from the collection of the same name and The Woman Chaser), Willeford's apparent Hollywood ambition would culminate in Roger Corman's New World Picture's purchase of the rights to his novel, Cockfighter.
Willeford agreed to sell the rights to his work with the stipulation that he could write the screenplay. "Not every novelist wants to adapt his novel for the screen, but I had wanted to write a screenplay for some time, just to see if I could do it. I had even considered the mad idea of writing an original screenplay, on speculation. But to write a screenplay on speculation, knowing in advance that it has such a very small chance of ever being produced, is a luxury for any writer who never has enough time to write anyway."
Directed by long-time Cashiers du Cinemart favorite, Monte Hellman, COCKFIGHTER saw Hellman directing his favorite actor, Warren Oates, in the role of Frank Mansfield. Stoic and determined, Oates gives a remarkable performance as Mansfield, who swore himself to silence and sobriety after an incident of drunken braggadocio, which left him without a bird and a chance at the Cockfighter of the Year Award. Uttering nary a word for the majority of the film, the viewer is able to witness Oates giving one of his best performances. Oates certainly was on a roll that year as he did COCKFIGHTER on the heals of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.
According to Willeford, he loosely based Frank Mansfield's mute quest for the Cockfighter of the Year Award on Homer's Odyssey. It's a journey of self-discovery, aided by an amazing cast of characters like Steve Railsback and Ed Begley Jr. (two men a little too fond of their chickens) and Oates' nemesis, Harry Dean Stanton. Also among the cast were Troy Donahue, the late Richard B. Shull and a few other Hellman regulars like Millie Perkins and Laurie Bird.
The most notable casting choice was Willeford as Ed Middleton, an ex-cocker who gives Frank a helping hand. "Charles became an actor in the film at the last minute, when I fired the actor set to play the role the night before shooting was to begin," says Hellman. Not only was Willeford able to experience the filmmaking process from behind the camera but in front of it as well. Willeford wrote that he hadn't "worked [as] hard since I left the horse cavalry in June, 1942."
Though COCKFIGHTER was ultimately a commercial failure, Willeford was apparently not entirely soured on the filmmaking process. The author stayed in touch with Roger Corman who asked Willeford to do some location scouting in the Florida Everglades and Marco Island for Corey Allen's THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. "Charles read the script, drove across the Trail, spent a couple days looking around, made some notes, arranged for housing for the crew and the cast, and bought a few junk cars," says Charles' widow, Betsy Willeford.
Willeford plays a bartender who gives booze-runner David Carradine the short end of the stick when competition (Roger C. Carmel, best known for playing Harcourt Fenton Mudd on "Star Trek") moves in on Carradine's territory. Not much of the film is remarkable except perhaps for the many ingenious uses of Kate Jackson's undergarments and the great line from Charles Napier, "Hey asshole, stop that kung-fu shit!" Otherwise, THUNDER AND LIGHTNING boasts long-winded car chases and cornball set pieces.
Willeford wouldn't write for the screen again. He refused a chance to adapt Miami Blues, leaving that task up to the film's director, George Armitage-another Corman alum. MIAMI BLUES was made under the impetus of Fred Ward whose Passing Moon production company optioned the rights to Willeford's book in 1986.
Originally, Ward wanted to play the role of Freddy Frenger while Gene Hackman agreed to play Detective Hoke Moseley. That idea was scrapped after Alec Baldwin tried out for the Frenger role, blowing everyone away with his performance. Hackman graciously accepted the decision of Baldwin to play Frenger with Ward taking over as Moseley. Baldwin does an excellent job as the unstable Frenger while Ward shines during his all-too-brief moments on screen as Moseley. With his unshaven face and dour expression, Ward often resembles Warren Oates and provides a performance worthy of the late actor.
For years rumors circulated about Fred Ward reprising his role as Moseley for film versions of the rest of the books in the series. That's unlikely as Passing Moon doesn't own the options for the books. Instead, the film rights for those and The Shark Infested Custard are now in the hands of Curtis Hanson who has plans of producing a series of Moseley films for HBO. Additionally, the film rights for The Burnt Orange Heresy currently belong to Eamonn Bowles of Shooting Gallery productions.
- The Woman Chaser
On the opposite end of the Willeford protagonist spectrum-far from the essentially noble characters of Mansfield and Moseley-is the disillusioned and delusional Richard Hudson of Robinson Devor's THE WOMAN CHASER. Unsatisfied with his success as a used car salesman, Hudson determines that his only path of redemption is through creating a work of art. Of course, Hudson realizes that becoming a true craftsman takes years of practice and perhaps an inherent ability. However, it's his opinion (which is ultimately proven true) that the one area remaining where a nobody can create a masterpiece is in Hollywood.
The Woman Chaser is the most cinematic-leastwise in its construction-of Willeford's works. Herein, the protagonist, Hudson, writes a recollection of his days as a movie director. He writes his memoirs in quasi-screenplay style, preceding every transition in the novel with direction such as "CROSSFADE", "DISSOLVE", or "FADE TO BLACK". Throughout the novel, the reader is given insight not only regarding Hudson's life but also in the method by which audience members react to the words on the page or the images on screen.
Like Hudson, THE WOMAN CHASER is director Devor's first try at a full-length motion picture. And, like Hudson's film-within-the-film, THE MAN WHO GOT AWAY, Devor has created a masterpiece. Running six full reels, Devor's film is free from unnecessary padding and moves at a breakneck pace. With a budget on par with THE MAN WHO GOT AWAY, THE WOMAN CHASER has tremendous production values. Shot in color but presented in breathtaking black & white, THE WOMAN CHASER is a beautiful looking film. The screenplay (penned by Devor) is delightfully accurate in its adaptation of Willeford's work, not only in being faithful to the tone of the book but in keeping ninety-percent of the original dialogue.
Starring Patrick Warburton as Hudson, the actor doesn't "portray" Hudson so much as he "inhabits" the role. His deadpan narration holds true to Hudson's sociopathic outlook on life. Hudson is a bastard and makes no bones about it. His moral ambiguity frees him to be completely outrageous in his appraisals of the world and unapologetic in his heinous actions.
Warburton often comes off as flat as a flapjack. Contrasting this insouciance are wild turns of emotion. Hudson is passionate about his desire to create-to give meaning to his money-grubbing life. Unfortunately for him, he learns too late that Hollywood's studio system is far more ruthless than he could ever be. As Hudson, Warburton often wears a mask of indifference, slightly squinting at scenery as if trying to make sense of the way of Hollywood. It's only after he dons a conspicuous set of sunglasses that he can operate in this foreign place with all the autonomous command he had over his Used Car lot.
Hudson's hardboiled demeanor, the employment of first-person voice-over narration, a flashback framing device, the use of Milkos Rozsa theme from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and an inherent moral ambiguity might lead critics to assume that THE WOMAN CHASER is a "modern day film noir." Indeed, THE WOMAN CHASER has an absurdity reminiscent of the work of Edgar G. Ulmer, but there is a modernity and self-reflexivity in Willeford's scenarios that puts THE WOMAN CHASER heads and shoulders above films that try to ape the classic noir traits.
- Cockfighter Journal
Upon first seeing Don Herron's name on his biography of Charles Willeford, simply called Willeford, one might recall Willeford's essay, "The Name Above the Title", which deals with the size of the author's name versus that of the title. Here Willeford's name was so prominent it looked as if he was finally getting a point size worthy of his ability. Could this be a book called Don Herron by Charles Willeford? Unfortunately, a more appropriate summation would be that the book should be titled Don Herron as written by Don Herron.
By everyone's accounts, Don Herron is a nice guy. He's learned in fiction and can craft quite a story. Whether intentional or not, however, Herron's work comes off as an ingratiating, self-serving publicity piece wherein he touts his prowess as a writer and friend to the often cantankerous Willeford.
Herron's book is divided into three sections; "In Life," "In Conversation," and "In Print." The second section is undoubtedly the most infuriating for those readers who want to know more about Charles Willeford and not Don Herron who dominates the transcription of (often inane) taped discussions. Rather than discovering/disclosing the source of Willeford's motifs, themes, and goofy "facts" (see above) that went unexplained by Willeford's body of autobiographical work, Herron merely states that he was never sure when Willeford was pulling his leg or not. Now that's investigative journalism!
While it might be nice to allow Willeford to keep some of his enigmatic qualities, The Burnt Orange Heresy's Jamie Figueras would argue that Herron shirked the onus of critical in his refusal to provide interpretation of the author's work. Apart from that, one would hope that a proper biographer would have at least included a more structured look at Willeford's life, including the years not covered by Willeford's own autobiographical texts. For example, while Willeford's aforementioned part in THUNDER AND LIGHTNING was important enough to merit a mention in "Hats" (an expanded story from I Was Looking for a Street found in Writing and Other Blood Sports), the only record of this work is buried in recesses of Willeford's bibliography.
Though an invaluable volume of Willefordian lore, Willeford is ultimately more frustrating than informative.
A dishwasher has no future.
But if you, too, require incentive
To equal my hard-earned success-
I know where a dishwashing job is open..."
- Understudy for Love
Not every Willeford novel is as delightful as the last. At times his work was marred by overzealous editors who demanded tawdry sex scenes (Understudy of Love) or felt themselves more qualified to write than the author (the first few chapters of No Experience Necessary were rewritten by an over-eager editor). While Willeford's career progressed, his writing improved as he gained autonomy over his novels.
As mentioned earlier, Willeford was constantly improving on the stories and themes that fascinated him. His early works provide valuable insight into the greater themes present in Willefords oeuvre. The following three books are undoubtedly the most quirky entries in his bibliography-not only in their themes but in their production.
Lust is a Woman (1958) is a shoddy book - not necessarily in the quality of writing but in the treatment of the material by publisher Beacon Books. Initially, one may presume that the stature of Lust is a Woman, as a rarity among Willeford bibliographies, may stem from the cover sporting a byline of "Charles Williford". The text of the work contains instances of twice-printed sentences and paragraphs as well as a scattering of omitted letters.
Aside from the textual flaws of the book, Lust is a Woman is a tawdry, compelling read. One of Willeford's first and few ventures into a third-person narrative, the novel is structured with the conceit he would employ in Off the Wall, Miami Blues, and Sideswipe of alternating the narrative between two central figures. In this case, the dual protagonists are Ralph Tone-an art student working as a bellboy for summer break-and Maria Dugan.
The cover states that Maria desperately wants "to become a movie star." This was an apparent ploy to paint the novel as a seedy tale of star-struck seduction. Yet, Maria is on vacation in Miami Beach-hundreds of miles from both the footlights of her native New York and the alluring glare of Hollywood glamour. Escaping from the typing pool to the sandy beaches of Florida, Maria never expresses desire for anything other than money. Her single-minded ambition ensnares the beautiful Maria in "an evil game" of white slavery.
Despite her apparent amorality, Maria is a more sympathetic character than is the hapless Ralph. Though he only manages a solitary, aborted date Ralph becomes hopelessly infatuated with the "big buxom woman" (whose breasts are under intense narrative scrutiny). Ralph's obsession is fueled by sleep deprivation, booze, uppers, and a lack of self-respect. Willeford highlights Ralph's underlying dementia in a familiar manner; "In less than an hour, Ralph was standing beneath the shower in the upstairs bathroom...completely sober, sick to both heart and stomach, as the hot water sluiced over his head he repeated to himself: 'I'll never be clean again. I'll never be clean again.'"
The protagonist in Understudy for Love (1961) bear's the name "Richard Hudson." However, there's little in common with the bastard hero of The Woman Chaser. Actually, the Hudson of The Woman Chaser is a direct descendant of used car dealer (and all around bastard), Russell Haxby of High Priest of California.
The Richard Hudson of Understudy for Love could be viewed as a primitive amalgam of the art critic (Jamie Figueras), and artist (Jacques Debierue) of The Burnt Orange Heresy. Like Figueras, Hudson is a writer for a periodical. In this case, Hudson churns out crappy copy for a daily newspaper in Lake Springs, Florida. Additionally, as Debierue, this Hudson is a frustrated artist.
Having some success at dramatic writing in college, Hudson had ambition of becoming a Broadway playwright. Instead, he spends his days ruminating over the handful of pages he's penned. His proposed play, "The Understudy", is a tale of duplicity in which a gifted amateur actor, employed as a dishwasher, plots to steal the job of a well-educated theater director by aping the mannerisms and skills of the director. Willeford's dishwasher as actor turns in an appearance in his story "An Actor Prepares" from Everybody's Metamorphoses.
Hudson recognizes that he is both "director" and "dishwasher" by being the creator of the play as well as being stuck. Like the dishwasher, Hudson sees his job at the newspaper as unbefitting his creative gifts. It takes a quixotic quest for "the unattainable" for Hudson to begin to glean that he is fortunate to have a job writing poignant items about a child bitten by a pet raccoon, a drunk throwing a bowl of chili through the window of Charlie's Chile Bowl, or an old boy of eighty exposing himself to some elderly ladies at the shuffleboard courts.
The impetus for Hudson's change of heart derives from a feature assignment regarding the upswing trend of suicide in America. At the center of his research is the murder-suicide of Marion Huneker and her two children. Written from Hudson's point-of-view, the reader is repeatedly presented with Hudson's apathy about his task and his slipshod journalism. Hudson's self-centered personality helps foster an inability to observe his surroundings. Hudson makes little progress in finding any motivation for Mrs. Huneker murdering her children and taking her own life. While Hudson's busy chasing the skirt of Huneker's best friend, Gladys Chatham, he fails to realize that his wife has taken a role in a the latest Community Theater production. By this, Hudson's wife becomes "director" to his "dishwasher".
The required sex scenes meant to sell the book as "adult reading" provide the novel with an overabundant amount of padding. A thoughtful character study and astute treatise on the creative process, Understudy for Love is flawed in its herky-jerky pacing and abrupt resolution.
The Whip Hand (1961) is undoubtedly the strangest entry in Willeford's bibliography. Published by Gold Medal (a major paperback publishing house that Willeford failed to crack), The Whip Hand bears the sole byline of W. Franklin Sanders. An old Army buddy, Sanders and Willeford are said to have worked on the original manuscript in 1946 (making it Willeford's first full-length book!). Gold Medal rejected the book in 1946; accepting it fifteen years later, after an extensive re-write by Sanders. By all accounts, "Deliver Me From Dallas" (the original title of the book) was released unbeknownst to Willeford. The amount of Sanders' input during the 1946 writing of "Deliver Me From Dallas" is questionable. The Whip Hand stands as the elusive Sanders' sole title.
Employing eight narrators-four of which "speak" in thick Okie vernacular-The Whip Hand follows Bill Brown, an ex-Los Angeles detective, through his misadventures in Dallas. Brown gets mixed-up in a kidnapping-turned-murder performed by three yokels. The leader of the trio is Junior Knowles, a cold-blooded killer who seems a graduate of the John D. MacDonald school of unexpectedly shrewd rednecks. The victim's family is the aristocratic Dixon clan, led by Galin Dixon and his firecracker of a daughter, Kay. Despite the implications of the cover art, Kay never gets to use her father's bullwhip.
However, Kay might like to have one used on her: "I leaned against the staircase and forced my right breast between two of the posts, under the top rail. The space between was a tight fit. The pressure felt nice against my flesh...I twisted my body as much as I could and the pain was nearly brutal. I flipped my skirt up to my waist and dug my nails in, all the while punishing my captive breast...In a few short minutes I felt better...I'd gotten some relief for my screaming nerves."
The use of so many narrators often proves tiresome as events are unnecessarily explained from multiple points-of-view. Yet, a few scenes benefit this conceit, especially those chapters narrated by characters that would otherwise remain minor without a narrative voice.
Like Willeford's subsequent work, The Whip Hand bears plenty of brutality, perversity, and a prominent mention of a gabardine suit. While the book ranks high among the harder-to-find Willeford books, publisher Dennis McMillan plans to release the original Willeford version at some point in the next few years. It should be worth the wait.
- The Burnt Orange Heresy
Finding the books of Charles Willeford can be a challenge but it's a quest that guarantees satisfaction.
While it's a shame that some of his early works are incredibly difficult to track down, the fruit of these seedlings can be plucked from Willeford's polished novels (such as Cockfighter, The Woman Chaser, The Burnt Orange Heresy, The Collected Memoirs of Charles Willeford, and the Hoke Moseley books).
On occasion, an odd novel will be republished without warning, such as Carroll & Graf's January 2000 release of The Burnt Orange Heresy. Meanwhile, 1999 saw Disc-Us Books publishing both of Willeford's primary memoirs (I Was Looking for a Street and Something About a Soldier) in one volume.
The true champion of bringing Willeford's work, especially the more rare titles, is Dennis McMillan. Publisher of a good number of Willeford's later, more challenging tomes (Kiss Your Ass Good-bye, Everybody's Metamorphosis, et. al.), the last few years have seen McMillan releasing the aforementioned biography of Willeford along with The Difference and Writing and Other Blood Sports (which contains New Forms of Ugly). Knowing how difficult it can be to find Willeford's works, McMillan even offers harder-to-find works via his website at www.DennisMcMillan.com. Another proponent of Willeford's work is V. Vale from RE/Search. Vale's volumes of High Priest of California and Wild Wives are available from www.VSearchMedia.com as well as hipper bookstores and Tower Records.
Searching out Willeford's work at one's local used or new bookstore will most likely uncover his Hoke Moseley books or an occasional Black Lizard edition (Cockfighter, The Burnt Orange Heresy, The Black Mass of Brother Springer, or Pick-Up). Otherwise, the best source for good prices on common Willeford titles is via www.AbeBooks.com. For high quality copies of Willeford's hard-to-find work, there's no better source than Baltimore's Royal Books.
Thanks to Kevin Johnson, Dennis McMillan, Betsy Willeford, Lewis Teague, Eamonn Bowles, George Armitage, Jim Trupin, and Joe McSpadden.