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Charles Willeford’s Portrait of the Artist as a Used Car Salesman

When I hit certain moments in works by Charles Willeford (1919–1988), I feel like the top of my head is going to rip right off. This is my brain teetering on the strange mental precipice that is the hallmark of Willeford’s odd and destabilizing fiction.

And usually at these heady Willefordian moments, I laugh (nervously? maniacally?) as well. I’m not prone to laughter, but Charles Willeford makes me laugh.

What is the source of Willeford’s idiosyncratic impact on readers—an impact that has won him devoted fans, brought his works back into print, and made him an important part of the 20th-century American crime fiction canon?

In 1989, Richard Gehr. writing in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, dubbed Willeford the “Pope of Psychopulp” (making Patricia Highsmith the “Popette”?), meaning in part: (1) that Willeford has a religious following; and (2) that a special subgenre name—“Psychopulp”—is needed to contain his works.

I’m not altogether crazy about the term “Psychopulp” as a description of Willeford’s content, but the word does aptly describe the effect of his works: my psyche—my psychology—is pulped as Willeford’s fiction unhinges certain bourgeois American attitudes and beliefs.

I would go so far as to argue that Charles Willeford, in his best works, puts art, aesthetic sensibility, critical acumen, morality, and American ideology on a dramatic collision course. Yeah, pretty sophisticated stuff for a guy whose first novels were published by third-string soft-porn paperback houses in the 1950s.

The typical Willefordian antihero is callous, corrupt, self-centered, materialistic, and violent, but also insightful, charming, and witty. And more crucially, these characters have deep artistic ambitions.

The apogee of the artistically driven criminal antihero is Richard Hudson, the protagonist of what was published as The Woman Chaser. (Willeford’s chosen title, The Director, often appears in lists of his works.) Hudson is a slick and successful used car salesman, but in an epiphany, he determines that he must compensate for the banality of American life through artistic creation:

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….One thing. That was all. One little thing. And then, maybe two things. But above all, ONE THING! This was it. One creative accomplishment could wipe away the useless days and tie up in a single package our reason for being here, our reason for existence.

And through his artistic creation, Hudson will do some moral good by “show[ing] the American people where they were headed before it was too late.”

In order to dramatize the emptiness of American materialism and domesticity, Hudson makes a film about a hapless truck driver with a “miserable home life—the bratty kids, the sloppy wife, television…mowing the lawn, that kind of stuff.” The truck driver makes an extra run to get away from his home and earn additional money to support that home. Exhausted, he runs over a little girl, who has been picking wildflowers accompanied by her puppy, and “squashes her flat.” By virtue of this act, he becomes somebody. But he is pursued down the highway, crashes into a roadblock, is burned by the ensuing fire, and is shot as he burns by police “pistols, rifles, and machine guns.” The end.

This film—a bleak, pulpy, violent, overwrought story—turns out to be an aesthetic success (“a little masterpiece,” says the film editor), but it fails to meet a key marketplace imperative: “Exhibitors insist on at least an hour and a half. Six full reels. That’s the business.” Hudson’s film is 63 minutes long and he refuses to pad it, an act that would be “just like adding three more plates to the last supper, or an extra wing to the Pentagon.” (Notice here the droll conflation of Old Master art and aestheticized American military supremacy.)

Hudson, until now a champion of “artistic integrity,” devolves into arson and violence, and then returns to selling used cars: “My kind of artistry was salesmanship, the selling of used cars. Somehow I had gotten reality mixed up with dreams…” Hudson’s filmmaking experience has undermined the dream of art untethered to commercial constraints. Two years before Warhol exhibited his “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans,” Willeford’s fiction had already sorely tested the divisions between high art and commodity.

If Richard Hudson is the supreme bête noir artist in the Land of Willeford, then James Figueras, the protagonist of The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), is its critic. At the novel’s outset, Figueras crows wonderfully about his appearance in the International Encyclopedia of Fine Arts:

In my limited visionary world, the world of art criticism, where there are fewer than twenty-five men—and no women—earning their bread as full-time art critics (art reviewers for newspapers don’t count), my name as an authority in this definitive encyclopedia means Success with an uppercase S….Only twenty-five full-time art critics in America, out of a population of more than two hundred million! This is a small number, indeed, of men who are able to look at art and understand it, and then interpret it in writing in such a way that those who care can share the aesthetic experience.

In trumpeting his aesthetic sensibility and critical discernment, Figueras displays the most vulgar values: he is sexist, careerist, conceited, overly competitive, and philistine. This is what high art has done for him. And to maintain his esteemed art world status, Figueras easily—naturally—slides from art criticism to arson, fraud, and worse.

Like Hudson, Figueras is vicious, but his vision and voice command the novel, and in that command we cannot help but accept him. Part of Willeford’s technique rests in never cueing the reader to distinguish between his characters’ aestheticism and intelligence and their madness and violence.

For more than 25 years, Willeford wrote books that at once flirted with high art and indulged pulp expectations. What happened? He went out of print. In the mid 1970s, he could not find a publisher for his latest novel, The Shark-Infested Custard (published posthumously in 1993). He self-published one undeniable gem, which should be required reading for certain medical students and patients: A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided (1977). (In a nutshell, here’s the advice: don’t get hemorrhoid surgery.)

Finally, starting in 1984 with Miami Blues, Willeford won new attention and commercial success with the creation of Hoke Moseley, a colorful, toothless, morose, and impoverished Miami cop who appeared in four published novels. Arguably, Willeford found a larger audience by providing his readers with firmer moral and genre ground than any of his previous works. Hoke may not be a classic hero, but he is clearly the good guy—the cop who hunts “blithe psychopath” Freddy Frenger, solves cold cases, and aids exploited Haitian workers. Some form of justice prevails in the end.

But Willeford still turns the screws, albeit more subtly. We like Hoke, but tugging at the back of one’s mind are his connections to criminals—he and Freddy Frenger, for example, both carry coffee cans to pee in. Hoke also commits morally dubious actions: In New Hope for the Dead (1985), for instance, he lets a killer go free so he can occupy her house. Hoke also joins Hudson and Figueras among the corps of Willeford arsonists.

In one regard, the Hoke Moseley books represent a departure for Willeford; his writing changed to meet a larger audience. But many of Willeford’s longtime interests, peculiarities, and effects run through the Hoke Moseley books. Willeford even reworked significant portions of the 1962 novel, No Experience Necessary, for the third Hoke Moseley novel, Sideswipe (1987).

Perhaps it is worth considering that readers changed as well—and met Willeford halfway. We are more willing to indulge morally tenuous and aesthetically challenging positions in a morally suspect and artistically diverse world. We’re more willing to take pleasure in those Willefordian moments when the top of your head peels right off.

Doug Levin’s most recent noir story, “The Docile Shark,” can be found in the December 2010 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His fiction also appeared alongside works by George P. Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Scott Phillips, Charles Willeford, and other notables in the anthology Measures of Poison. His first novel, provisionally titled Jailhouse Pale, is now making its rounds with publishers. In the previous millennium, he received his PhD in English from Yale University. His irregular musings about crime fiction and film can be found at http://douglevin.blogspot.com/.