“All through life we protect ourselves from countless hurtful truths by being a little blind here–by ignoring the something trying to flag our attention on the outer edges of our peripheral vision, by being a little shortsighted there–by being a trifle too quick to accept the easiest answer, and by squinting our eyes against the bright, incoming light all of the time. Emerson wrote once that even a corpse is beautiful if you shine enough light on it.”
I first came across cult author Charles Willeford through the bizarre film, The Woman Chaser. The film was so odd, I knew I had to read the novel the film was based on, and I was delighted to find that the book was every bit as bizarre as the film. I was hooked. Then I moved onto other Willeford novels: Wild Wives and The Burnt Orange Heresy.
Willeford is considered a crime/noir writer, and he’s perhaps best remembered as the creator of Miami detective Hoke Moseley. Miami Blues is the film version of one of Moseley’s tales, and if you haven’t seen it, then do yourself a favour and find a copy. Do yourself an even bigger favour and hunt down a copy of The Woman Chaser while you are it. But it’s bizarre, so be prepared.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is a change of pace for Willeford. The story is told by Jacques “James” Figueras, a Puerto-Rican American, who’s an ambitious art critic. Every aspect of James’s life is geared towards becoming “the greatest art critic in America–and perhaps the world.” At age 34, it’s been a long hard haul for James. He’s made enormous financial sacrifices during the course of his career, and has sacrificed short-term gain for the long-term goal. A graduate of Columbia, he was a teacher of art history, but managed to morph into a full time writer of art criticism, thanks to a $400 a month stipend from a premier art magazine, and this “wedge” into the upper echelons of the art world gives James the clout to write freelance for other magazines.
It’s a precarious lifestyle, and James sacrifices to maintain his independence. There’s no long-term girlfriend in his life, no messy relationships with women, no vices, no expensive habits, and he lives in a modest, tiny apartment.
James travels to Florida to “cover the Gold Coast for the season,” and here he finds himself in a relationship with Berenice, a teacher from Ohio. What started out as a holiday fling has become an annoyance, and although James enjoys sex with Berenice, she’s moved into his apartment and won’t go away. Berenice is easy on the eyes, but annoying and messy as a permanent fixture. “[A]s stealthy as a 140-pound mouse,” Berenice’s clinginess rattles James’s nerves, and he finally resorts to nastiness to shake her loose:
“Later I asked her to leave in a harsh and nasty way. She wouldn’t fight with me, but she wouldn’t leave. On these occasions she wouldn’t even talk back….she was destroying me. I would leave the apartment, forever, and come back a few hours later for a reconciliation replay and a wild hour in the sack.”
But since “a woman is only a woman,” James finally gives Berenice the heave-ho. Thinking he’s got rid of her, he attends a party at the Florida penthouse apartment of New York Lawyer and art collector, Joseph Cassidy. Taking James aside, Cassidy reveals a strange story. He’s managing the affairs of a reclusive, elderly French painter named Debierue. Debierue, considered the originator of the minor, brief Nihilistic Surrealism movement, only ever had one exhibit at his Paris framing shop decades before, and his later works have been viewed only by a handful of world-class art critics. Cassidy reveals to James that Debierue is now living in Florida, and he strikes a deal with James.
In return for giving James Debierue’s address in order to gain access for a coveted interview, Cassidy wants James to steal a painting for his private collection. To James, the opportunity to interview Debierue and assess his work is the chance of a lifetime, and an article featuring Debierue’s art would seal James’s career in the art world. James doesn’t hesitate, and he agrees to Cassidy’s deal.
James plunges headlong into Cassidy’s scheme, and never once quibbling about the morality of the situation, he’s led by his ambition into a morass of complicated choices.
Willeford always surprises me, and The Burnt Orange Heresy is no exception. This is a marvellous story and it’s considered by many Willeford fans to be his best work. The tale is told through the eyes of James, a strangely emotionless man who admits his conscience is ‘invented.’ He burns with a frighteningly intense ambition to be the world’s greatest art critic, and just how far he’s prepared to go is the substance of this book. But the tale is much, much more than a crime novel, and as the story unfolds, it explores the “uneasy symbiotic relationship” between the artist and the critic and ultimately questions the nature of art itself.
Willeford was a strange character, and at one time in his checkered career, he enrolled in the graduate Art programme at a university in Lima, Peru, but was thrown out when it was discovered that he didn’t possess an undergraduate degree. Several of Willeford’s book are out-of-print, and some of the rarer titles are available at extortionate prices. Well I’ve read three Willeford novels so far–all different and all excellent. If you like noir novels at the edge of twisted, then Willeford comes highly recommended