I've started in this months ago, and it will take me a while to finish. This is an ideal collection to dip into every now and again. I can't better th...moreI've started in this months ago, and it will take me a while to finish. This is an ideal collection to dip into every now and again. I can't better the NYRB's own description of their reissue (http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints...), except to say it's very enjoyable. It's 'light' literature, Collier is no Chekhov. But he's very good at what he does, very effective and efficient with his means. And, quite simply, entertaining.(less)
Strange little thriller. Just as in We Have Always Lived At The Castle, I think I detect a strong influence of 40s Hollywood films, both comedies and...moreStrange little thriller. Just as in We Have Always Lived At The Castle, I think I detect a strong influence of 40s Hollywood films, both comedies and noir thrillers. I prefer the other, shorter novel, but this is interesting too. Jackson has very weird obsessions (with identity, paranoia, feeling ostracized and feeling hostile towards others while at the same time wanting to identify with them).(less)
Willeford creates a memorable psychopath in Frederick J. Frenger. Although detective Hoke Moseley is the ostensible protagonist, evil Freddy is much m...moreWilleford creates a memorable psychopath in Frederick J. Frenger. Although detective Hoke Moseley is the ostensible protagonist, evil Freddy is much more interesting. (Incidentally, he made me think of one of inspector Rebus' adversaries, I think it was the one from Question of Blood; I wouldn't be surprised if Rankin is familiar with Willeford's work.) It's not so much Freddy's capacity for violence that is interesting as his curious mix of sly premeditation and thoughtless blundering, and the deep lack of purpose that turns out to underlie his seemingly purposeful trajectory. Quotes like this are rather hilarious from the mouth of a man responsible for numerous murders:
Hitting the unconscious man had given him no pleasure; he still didn’t know why the cop in Santa Barbara had tapped him with the sap. Policemen undoubtedly had some kind of inborn perverted streak that normal men like himself didn’t have.
But it's not so much that he's smug. It's more that he is looking for a purpose in life – and he does it with the methodical rigour of the American self improvement literature. Or this look into his 'soul':
My problem is that I can have everything and anything I want, but what do I want? He didn’t want anything, including the cigarette he had thought he wanted. What did he want? Nothing. In prison he had made mental lists of all kinds of things he would get when he was released, ranging from milk shakes to powder blue Caddy convertibles. But he didn’t like milk shakes because of the furry aftertaste, and a convertible in Florida would be too uncomfortably hot—unless he kept the top up and the air conditioning going full blast. So who would want a convertible?
Or this philosophical rumination:
He had turned selflessness to self-interest, learning the lesson that everyone must come to eventually: what a man gives up voluntarily cannot be taken away from him.
The problem is that Willeford hardly provides little to balance these views. As a result the novel's moral center is rather diffuse, and Freddy's outlook sometimes seems to coincide with Willeford's. When he writes that 'Freddy reviewed his life and realized that altruism had been his major fault', the problem is that to some extent the narrative tends to prove Freddy right: from Freddy's viewpoint and with his autistic logic, it is indeed Freddy's peculiar brand of 'altruism' that does get him in trouble. Besides, Willeford seems to be looking for a plot as much as Freddy is looking for a purpose. The story is rather rambling and lacking in direction – there are rather a lot of coincidences and nothing very clever or ingenious in the way of plot development. (This relative lack of direction, incidentally, is also something which this book shares with the Rebus thrillers, in my opinion.)
In addition to which, the dialogues are sometimes a little contrived, a little flat. Certainly not as dropdown realistic as those of George V. Higgins, and not as wry and funny as the best I've read of Elmore Leonard or (a totally different kind of author) Ross Macdonald. They're often okay and sometimes quite good. But sometimes they're just stale, especially the talks of detective Moseley with his colleagues. And there is the occasional false note in charactarization. E.g. when I read that 'the tall unfinished buildings in Kendall Pines Terrace reminded Hoke of the Roman apartment houses he had seen in Italian neorealist movies', I think: how did Moseley suddenly get interested in 'Italian neorealist movies', let alone the terminology to categorize those movies as such? Otherwise he's not depicted as someone with very intellectual tastes. In fact, apart from the usual signs of the messed up private life that is the stock-in-trade of many crime fiction detectives, his character doesn't become very vivid at all.
So all in all I found this a rather disappointing novel. I was pleasantly surprised by Willeford's Pick Up because it had some surprises in store that really caught me unawares, and because it was obviously so much better written than what I'd expect of pulp. But maybe he's not quite the sophisticated author I though I'd discovered.
Incidentally, it is interesting again to note in this novel how deeply modern technology has influenced the plots of crime fiction. One wonders how this will impress future readers. Take this sentence: 'Hoke checked his mailbox.' Had the novel been written about 20 years later, the meaning would have been entirely different. But will a reader 100 years from now still realize this?(less)
Another weird Charles Willeford book. It partly reads like a film script, because the narrator seems to be obsessed with film. Early into the story he...moreAnother weird Charles Willeford book. It partly reads like a film script, because the narrator seems to be obsessed with film. Early into the story he breaks out into asides like this:
Already I sense that I am breaking some cardinal rule of writing. If I continue in this vein how will I be able to establish a strong reader-identification? The average reader has a tendency to identify himself with a lead character and to project himself into the story and actually live the story through the thoughts, emotions and actions of the lead character. Poor reader. I am the reader and I dread the thought of going through it all again, and at the same time I welcome and relish the opportunity. Perhaps I am a masochist?
Richard Hudson is a used car dealer but all he wants is to make a film.
Our lives are so short and there is so little time for creativeness, and yet we waste our precious time, letting it dribble through our fingers like dry sand. But that was it. Creativeness. To create something. Anything.
He has some traits in common with the sociopath Frederick J. Frenger in Willeford's later novel Miami Blues. Both characters share this sentiment:
As I see things now, in retrospection, the only thing the matter with me was my compassion for others.
But it's unclear to what extent we're supposed to feel Hudson is a psychopath (he goes a little postal towards the end of the novel) and to what extent he's actually a truth teller, an artist with a clearer view of reality than the average citizen. It offers Willeford some occasion for satire, but it's all a little unfocused and sometimes plainly just boring. The story keeps you reading just because it's so weird, rather than because there's any memorable writing. (less)
Am I being very unoriginal if I call this chicklit avant la lettre?
It's entertaining enough, in a rather bland way. A woman musing about her garden a...moreAm I being very unoriginal if I call this chicklit avant la lettre?
It's entertaining enough, in a rather bland way. A woman musing about her garden and what a drag household work is and how stupid men can be, and how women's lib should really be on the agenda but oh, maybe it's not that important after all as long as you can sit in your garden and enjoy the flowers (that the gardener will have to plant for you because obviously digging a whole is just too much strain, she's tried and it really was no good).
This makes it sound worse than it is, it's fairly witty as well. But eh... dripping with mauvaise foi.(less)
A terrific collection, even better than the companion volume with novels from the 30s and 40s. This anthology has made me acquainted with some novels...moreA terrific collection, even better than the companion volume with novels from the 30s and 40s. This anthology has made me acquainted with some novels I might not otherwise have known. I liked all of them and some were downright brilliant. (less)
Wow, a big thank you to LoA for bringing this to my attention. I'd never heard of the writer, much less this novel. It is also available as a free ebo...moreWow, a big thank you to LoA for bringing this to my attention. I'd never heard of the writer, much less this novel. It is also available as a free ebook at Munsey's: it was originally published as an unpretentious pulp novel, in one of those cheap pockets with lurid covers. But there's a very serious author at work here. The story is about a down-and-out ex-artist who hitches up with an equally down-and-out and even more alcoholic ex-socialite. The first part reads like a novel version of Barfly, the film based on Bukowski's work. The writing is very controlled, and Willeford clearly knows what he wants with this novel. Apart from Barfly and the Bukowski biotope, the novel sometimes reads like an American equivalent of L'étranger or La nausée, and reminds one of all those unfathomable youngers with a death wish in existentialist films of the 50s and 60s. But there are also huge differences, e.g. Willeford's nihilism (or rather, his protagonist Harry Jordan's nihilism) seems much more grounded in capitalist realities.
In any case, you clearly see a conscious writer at work, not just a dimestore hack. Just look at how often the phrase 'didn't know' (and variations on it) recur: 'I didn't know what to do or what to say next'. This is a recurrent refrain. Other people also often don't really know what to do, e.g. someone threatens to shoot him and his girl friend, but when he says 'go ahead, kill us', the assailent suddenly doesn't know what to do anymore. And when a cop comes to arrest Harry, he too is confused and 'Evidently he didn't know whether to take me along or leave me in the room by myself.'
There are also some very weird scenes, and it's not always obvious how seriously you are meant to take them (because on the whole, the tone of the novel is not very comic). Consider this interrogation by a psychiater:
"How was your sex life, then?" "How is any sex life? What kind of an answer do you want?" "As a painter—you did paint, didn't you?" I nodded. "You should have a sharp notice for sensation, then. Where did it feel the best? The tip, the shaft, where?" He held his pencil poised over a sheet of yellow paper.
Does this doctor really mean what I think he means? More obviously funny is this scene towards the end, another talk with another psychiatrist.
"Then let us begin with the Rorschach." Dr. Fischbach opened his untidy top desk drawer, dug around in its depths and brought out a stack of cards about six inches by six inches and set them before me, Number One on top. "These are ink blots, Jordan, as you can see. We'll go through the cards one by one and you tell me what they remind you of. Now, how about this one?" He shoved the first card across the desk and I studied it for a moment or so. It looked like nothing. "It looks like an art student's groping for an idea." I suggested. "Yes?" He encouraged me. "It isn't much of anything. Sometimes, Doctor, when an artist is stuck for an idea, he'll doodle around with charcoal to see if he can come up with something. The meaningless lines and mass forms sometimes suggest an idea, and he can develop it into a picture. That's what these ink blots look like to me." "How about right here?" He pointed with his pencil to one of the larger blots. "Does this look like a butterfly to you?" "Not to me. No." "What does it look like?" "It looks like some artist has been doodling around with black ink trying to get an idea." How many times did he want me to tell him? "You don't see a butterfly?" He seemed to be disappointed. "No butterfly." I wanted to cooperate, but I couldn't see any point in lying to the man. It was some kind of trick he was trying to pull on me. I stared hard at the card again, trying to see something, some shape, but I couldn't. None of the blots made a recognizable shape. I shook my head as he went on to the next card which also had four strangely shaped blots. "Do these suggest anything?" He asked hopefully. "Yeah," I said. If he wanted to trick me I would play one on him. "I see a chicken in a sack with a man on its back; a bottle of rum and I'll have some; a red-winged leek, and an oversized beak; a pail of water and a farmer's daughter; a bottle of gin and a pound of tin; a false-faced friend and days without end; a big brown bear and he's going everywhere; a big banjo and a–" He jerked the cards from the desk and shoved them into the drawer. He looked at me seriously without any expression on his dark face and twisted the point of his beard with thumb and forefinger. My thin cotton robe was oppressively warm. I smiled, hoping it was ingratiating enough to please the doctor. Like all doctors, I knew, he didn't have a sense of humor.
By then, the social realist novel has also turned into an artist novel. (Willeford plays quite a game with genre expectations. Or, more likely, he just doesn't care that much about genre definitions.) And before we finish, it will mutate yet again into something entirely different. Sorry that this discussion has to remain so abstract. I don't want to reveal too much about the actual storyline, because the few narrative surprises the book contains perform an important function. Suffice it to say it's a very interesting novel that deserves to be better known. (less)