Charles Willeford

Barely acknowledged while alive, most of his books are out of print today. The ones that are available, to my mind, barely scratch the surface of his genius. It seems like every few years a young, eager editor gets the rights, releases a couple, they do horribly, and thats that till the next young editor comes along and tries again. In print now, in some of the butt-ugliest designed covers EVER, is Willeford's early novel Wild Wives, the truly great series of Hoke Mosely detective books: Miami Blues, The Way We Die Now, Sideswipe, and New Hope For The Dead and the great The Shark Infested Custard, which was only first published after he died.
Willeford's early work feels more pulpy and has dated somewhat, but still retains a lot of humor unlike guys like Goodis or Thompson. Both those guys have humor in their books, but it's more relegated to a supporting character or certain scenes, whereas in early Willeford, there's an air of absurdity running throughout the whole thing from the plots down to the characters. my favorite of these is probably The Woman Chaser. About a used car salesman who moves down to L.A. to make movies (sort of. its still a crime novel don't forget).
Willeford started out as a poet, and like many writers, had literary aspirations, but could only get published in the pulps writing crime fiction. Inspiring is the fact that he was only published late in life, in his early forties, after a career in the military. In an early essay he talked about how he recommends a military life for writers as long as they never get promoted from a low level position: you do a minimum of work, have time for writing, and you are constantly meeting people and having interesting experiences. Some of this is covered in his autobiographies I was Looking For A Street and Something About A Soldier. The former about growing up in foster homes around Los angeles and being a 13 year old hobo during the depression, and the latter about being joining the army at 16 and life stationed in the Philippines between the world wars. Both excellent novels full of slutty girls, frustrated soldiers, and menial work.
His later work is written in a style of casual observation and clear prose, something only attainable from years and years of writing. Nothing feels forced or fake. It all reads like autobiography, no matter what the subject matter or how far fetched. The guy wrote four detective novels (the above mentioned Hoke Mosely series) that spent as much time on the petty bureaucracy of the Miami police department as it did on the plot, and Willeford did no research whatsoever into being a police officer. All Fake. It's regional writing. it is very much about a milieu of particular place, specifically Miami in the late seventies, early eighties, where Willeford made his home. I have never been to the Florida of the early eighties, but feel like I know the place, it's politics, it's racial and class struggles, it's breakfast menus.
In this way he reminds me very much, in concerns, as a worldly Charles Bukowski. Willeford has that same understated tragedy and focus of the tangible.
In the late seventies, his novel Cockfighter was turned into a movie by Monte Hellman, starring Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, and Willeford as well. He kept a journal during filming released in a low print run years later, and its full of great gossip and asides about cockfighting and Georgia, were the filming took place. Like how Monte Hellman and his girlfriend Lauri Bird ate off a shared plate with no cutlery, as that was the 'in' thing to do in france at the time, and how Cockfighter was the only Roger Corman produced picture to ever lose money.
Success never came to Willeford. He made his living teaching writing and as a critic reviewing crime novels for the local paper. In the last years of his life, he developed a fanbase due to the Hoke Mosely books. It seems like slowly, as years pass, his name grows larger. There is even a biography that came out a couple years ago by Don Herron, it's not great or anything, but it's nice that it exists.
On almost every Willeford book is the following quote by Elmore Leonard "No one writes a better crime novel then Charles Willeford". Leonard is the poor man's Willeford, and I say that as a Leonard fan. You read Leonard after plowing through a stack of Willeford and don't want it to end, but know it must, so you substitute it for a measly copy. So if you're a Leonard fan wake up already.
So dont be discouraged by the new ugly covers, start with The Shark Infested Custard, then read the Hoke Mosely series, then go to Ebay for the two memoirs. After that, it wont matter what you pick up, it's all great.

posted by sammy at 3:29 PM

Blogger T. Hodler said...

Don't forget The Burnt Orange Heresy, one of his best. It's also in print, and its current incarnation features some of the worst cover art of all time (it has absolutely nothing to do with the contents).

But you're right -- Willeford's great.

5:08 PM  

Blogger sammy said...

I am starting to feel like you're my new york double. thank god I am over here and you're over there otherwise our heads would explode.

6:02 PM  

Blogger WEISSMAN said...

Hey Sammy -- Funny you're posting this. Pick-Up is one of my personal favorites and after years of (not really) looking around for it, I'm finally getting around to Burnt Orange Heresy. I've loved everything I've read of Willeford except the Hoke Mosely books, which I couldn't get into, but it's been bugging me how much I dislike The Burnt Orange Heresy. Maybe it wraps up well, but it sucks so much! Especially that part where he references Death in the Afternoon and proceeds to bore and annoy the reader the same way Hemingway did in that book... Maybe that's just my problem?

8:54 AM  

Blogger T. Hodler said...

Really? I liked The Burnt Orange Heresy a lot, but I probably like things that satirize art critics more than I should.

Strangely, I couldn't get into The Pick-Up, but I think I was in the wrong mood for it at the time. I plan to try again at some point.

By the way, I got that Payseur & Schmidt book you did an illustration for and liked it a lot.

10:15 AM  

Blogger sammy said...

steve, I think you should check out his two memoirs. if you dont like those, I cant imagine liking any of his later work. a great middle period book is machine in ward eleven. it's odd in that it looks like novel, but each chapter is its own short story, but the main characters share the same name often. but it has a lot of fantastic genre elements running through them, almost in a twilight zone way, and still retaining his very distinct voice and concerns.
and if you dont like that, well, theres nothing more to say!

11:21 PM  

Blogger WEISSMAN said...

Hey Guys -- Obviously, the problem with Burnt Orange Heresy for me is that particular combination of devices. I don't like historical fiction that oversimplifies history, attributing too much credit/influence to a single character (Kavalier + Clay, Red Rocket 7 [!!] and I think Forrest Gump was like this, too, but I only caught a little of it on TV). It's a childish fantasy and sells the weirdness and complexity of life way too short. The other thing is that Death in the Afternoon essay framed as interview or dialogue that sounds so blah-blah-blah fake. Big breath...

10:49 AM  

Blogger WEISSMAN said...

Did that last bit make sense?

Anyhow, I do adore Willeford and used to drool over way-too-expensive copies of the Machine in Ward Eleven at Kayo in S.F. (they had/have a great collection of rare Willeford). Has that come back into print or may I borrow yours?

I will take your advice about the memoirs, thanks. Some of my favorite Thompson are his two memoirs (Roughneck and Bad Boy), but I disagree with you that Willeford's funnier than Thompson.

Anyway, thanks you guys. And thanks T.H. about the P & S drawing (in Darkening Garden), we just made a big, weird screenprint of it.

11:01 AM  

Blogger sammy said...

you can get a copy of machine in ward eleven, with a cover like the one on the blog, for under ten bucks on
the memoirs can also be had sorta cheap in the $10-20 range or in a weird print on demand edition that has both on amazon.

4:41 PM  

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