The Woman Chaser: Charles Willeford (1960)

“On an impulse, I squeezed Laura’s panties, brassiere and slip into a little silky ball and buried my face in the softness, inhaling deeply of her delicious female fragrance. I had to laugh at myself. When a man starts doing weird things like that, he needs a woman in the worst way. In sudden disgust, I tossed her underthings on the floor, left the cabana and joined Laura at the water’s edge.”

For some reason or another, I seem to be reading books lately that cross genres, and this is true for one of my recent reads, The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford. After watching the film version of the same name, I knew I had to read the book the film was based on. Was it possible, I asked myself that someone actually wrote so bizarre a book as The Woman Chaser, or was the book different from the film version? Were all of the bizarre elements in the film just interpretations of a fairly normal book?

Well, I’ve finished The Woman Chaser and the author, Charles Willeford has a new fan. Willeford who died in 1988, seems to be a strange character who could very well belong in his book. He served in the U.S Army from 1942-1949, earning a number of medals and the rank of master sergeant. Then he enrolled in a Peruvian university graduate programme before he was given the boot when it was discovered he didn’t have a degree after all. Jobs he held, apart from an on-again, off-again military career, included professional boxer, horse trainer, and actor. Earning a B.A in English literature, he eventually taught philosophy and English in Florida.

In between all of these jobs, Willeford found time to write and in 1960, he penned the remarkable novel, The Woman Chaser. Part pulp, part noir, this amazing novel seems way ahead of its time, and that’s thanks mainly to its perverse narrator, Richard Hudson. When the novel begins, Hudson, a talented, successful and manipulative used car salesman heads to L.A from San Francisco. His assignment is to establish a used car lot for his boss Honest Hal, and the first few pages of the novel are devoted to Hudson’s crafty acquisition of the dream-lot located on Crenshaw Boulevard. After ripping off the listless, unambitious owner, Richard sets up an efficient office, hiring, dominating and exploiting a retired Army Master Sergeant named Bill:

“Any employer who fails to hire a retired Master Sergeant or Navy Chief who has completed the required twenty years is making a grave mistake. I mean retired enlisted men, of course, A retired officer is a different matter. Within five minutes a retired officer will attempt to tell you how to run your business. The fact that he doesn’t know what he is talking about doesn’t deter him at all; he believes he knows all there is to know about management. For some reason, no American male ever quite gets over having been an officer.”

Recognizing that Bill is an “uncut jewel,” Richard hires him to manage the office, and soon the car lot is up and running, and making a healthy profit. But boredom quickly sets in, and Richard becomes consumed with the idea that he needs to create something. Moving back home with his bizarre self-focused, ballet obsessed mother, his has-been director stepfather, Leo, and his nymphette stepsister, Becky, Richard develops an idea for a movie. Richard’s dual goal is to create something permanent but also “to show the American people where they were headed before it was too late.” Calling his movie, The Man Who Got Away, Richard hustles up enough money and a brief synopsis and sends Leo to approach “THE MAN at Mammoth Studios.”

To everyone’s surprise (Richard’s, Leo’s and this reader’s) soon Richard has the green light from Mammoth Studios to go ahead with his project. The plot is simple: to Richard, it’s the story of Mr. Average American–an antisocial truck driver unhappily married to a “sloppy broad,” and whose deadly boring job barely allows him to pay his bills. On the course of a long drive, he runs over and kills a child and a statewide chase ensues. With the resources of the studio behind him, Richard begins to make his film, gathering up a motley assortment of amateurs and one seasoned bitter actor to play the main part.

Throughout the novel, Richard narrates this bizarre tale of manipulation, ambition, and seduction. Richard can’t meet a woman without plotting her seduction, and there’s no low trick he won’t sink to on the way to the bedroom. But Richard’s primary, and extremely peculiar relationship seems to be with his vain mother. In one scene, he indulges in a frantic ballet session with her in the enormous basement of the family home:

“Two hundred pounds, the beginnings of a paunch, big size-eleven feet, more enormous yet in red-yellow-and-blue cashmere argyles, thick hairy arms and basket-ball-player hands, a mat of blue-black chest hair, a sunburned grinning face, and a heedful of dark unruly hair, badly in need of cutting. Some dancer! I laughed wildly. In the face of all maternal arguments I had quit taking ballet lessons when I turned fourteen and fell in love with baseball. The hell with it! I assumed an attitude and met Mother’s charming pas de Bouree with outstretched arms and fingers.”

Capable of the most despicable actions, Richard Hudson has to be one of the most perverse literary creations I’ve come across. Pathologically self-focused, he narrates the tale, justifies his actions, and mentally rewrites his motivations until he’s satisfied that he’s the blameless player in his own perverse behaviour. With complex layers of self-deception, Richard narrates his story, and since he colours his deviousness with twisted logic–particularly in his relations with women–a magnificent dissonance occurs between Richard’s actions and how he presents them to the reader. Willeford constructs the presentation of his pathologically perverse protagonist with stunning, bold clarity. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how some people can look at themselves in the mirror, then do yourself a favour and read this book. And then see the film.

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7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Willeford, Charles

7 responses to “The Woman Chaser: Charles Willeford (1960)

  1. Have you read Willeford’s Hoke Mosely books yet? They’re great. So are his two autobiographical works. One is called “Something about a Soldier,” and I’ve forgotten what the other one is called.

    W was a very talented and weird individual.

  2. Brian Armacost

    So you’ve just discovered Willeford? Oh how I envy you. Have fun.

  3. leroyhunter

    Well, I took the suggestion, and now I’d just like to say: this is one of the most peculiar books I’ve ever come across. What is it? Crime? Noir? Sociology tract? Screenplay?

    I’m almost relieved to see you use “bizarre” in your review Guy.

    Whatever it is, the end result is compelling. I agree with you totally, Hudson is one of the biggest fuck-ups I’ve come across in fiction. Violent, clever, self-absorbed, a sentimentalist…he has “issues”. But the seductive way he pleads his case directly with the reader means it’s only when you look back and sum up the crimes (or even just the *types* of crimes) he’s committed that you realise: he’s a maniac.

    Thanks (I think) for the recommend Guy…I’ll be looking up more Willeford.

    DISSOLVE

  4. leroyhunter

    A quick PS: the edition I got nearly drove me demented with typos. Is this usual with Black Mask? Really, it was terrible – almost give-up-worthy. Hopefully just a bad edition.

  5. My copy is from No Exit. I can’t say that I noticed any typos–although most books these days have at least a couple.

    If you ever get a chance to see the film, then do yourself a favour and see it. I spent half the time laughing and half the time not really believing what I was seeing.

    Burnt Orange Heresy is another good one.

    Willeford broadened my horizons….

  6. leroyhunter

    I’ll look up the film alright.

    I’m really keen to read Miami Blues now, and compare with the flick…

  7. The ballet scenes are …. well unforgettable. What a kinkfest.

    I’ve only been able to find the film as a VHS. Oh and it’s reviewed on the noir of the week site too.

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