Is it an exaggeration to call Charles Willeford The Pope of Psychopulp? I came across this description the other day. It’s one I’d never heard of before, and yet somehow it fits Willeford’s sick and twisted transgressive fiction. Don’t get me wrong: I think Willeford is FANTASTIC, but his characters always manage to surprise me with their amoral world view and deviant actions.
The Shark-Infested Custard is my fourth Willeford, and during this bleak January, it seemed the perfect time to dip into Willeford’s sordid world. For anyone interested, I’ve also read The Burnt-Orange Heresy, The Woman Chaser, and Wild Wives (placed in the order of preference). According to the blurb on the back cover, Willeford considered The Shark-Infested Custard his “master work,” and here’s a quote from its author:
The Shark-Infested Custard says a good deal about the brutalization of urban life–at least in Miami. It’s written in the hard-boiled tradition of James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and, I suppose, it is a fairly nasty picture of so-called ordinary young men who are making it down here. But such was my intention…”
The Shark-Infested Custard was written in 1975, but it was not published in its entirety until 1993 a few years after Willeford’s death in 1988. Part I of The Shark-Infested Custard was published as Strange in the story collection Everybody’s Metamorphosis in 1988 (446 copies from the private press of Dennis McMillan). Part II was first published as Kiss Your Ass Goodbye (442 copies from the private press of Dennis McMillan). These details are included here to help anyone interested in buying Willeford books. Several of the books have more than one title, and I spent some time looking for Kiss Your Ass Goodbye until I realised it was part of The Shark-Infested Custard.
The Shark-Infested Custard is the loosely knit tale of four young men living in Miami in the 70s. While this is a novel, the book reads like four interconnected stories with each story focusing on a different character. When the novel begins the men are whooping it up in Dade Towers, a singles-only apartment building. The men form a sort of friendship based on the fact that they are the first four tenants of the new building. They are:
Larry “Fuzz-O” Dolman:
Larry was a policeman but his bad temper and the lack of promotion now finds him as a senior security officer with a large nationwide company.
Hank has an A.B. in psychology. He’s a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, and while he rates as a top salesman, he has the job down to just 10-15 hours a week. According to Larry, Hank “probably gets more strange in a single month than the rest of us get in a year.” Hank’s success with women can be partly attributed to his dashing good looks but his confidence also plays a huge role. He applies his psychology background to the women he ‘dates.’ I’m using the term ‘dates’ loosely. Hank doesn’t ‘date’ women in a long or even a short-term way. He has sex with them–plain and simple. The date part is the time leading up to the sex.
Eddie is an ex-air force pilot. He’s a sociable cipher for much of the book, but then when we discover a bit about what he’s thinking, it’s all rather unpleasant covered by this polished veneer. For a portion of the book, Eddie lives the life of a gigolo with a much older woman named Gladys–a “well-to-do widow” who lives in a magnificent house in Miami Springs.
Don is married is separated from his wife, Clara, and he has an unpleasant child named Marie (more of that later). He works for a British silverware company, and since he’s their man in Miami, he has a lot of freedom when it comes to his work schedule.
The novel begins with Larry’s narration. It all starts with a few martinis:
We were on the second round of martinis when we started to talk about picking up women. Hank being the acknowledged authority on this subject, threw out a good question. “Where, in Miami,” Hank said, “is the easiest place to pick up some strange? I’m not saying the best, I’m talking about the easiest place.”
A debate takes place with the topic of V.D clinics being a great place to score, but then the talk moves on to “the hardest place in Miami to pick up a woman.” Hank, who is the most successful man in the group with women, finally reveals that the most difficult place is the drive-in. The casual talk moves to some serious bets, and before the evening is over, Hank commits to picking up a woman at the drive-in within a two-hour time frame. The other three men agree to wait at the Burger Queen across the street from the drive-in. Here’s Hank, freshly showered and dressed for the kill:
Hank came into the living room, looking and smelling like a jai-alai player on his night off. He wore white shoes with leather tassels, and a magenta slack suit with a silk blue-and-red paisley scarf tucked in around the collar. Hank had three other tailored suits like the magenta–wheat, blue and chocolate–but I hadn’t seen the magenta before. The high-waisted pants, with an uncuffed flare, were double-knits, and were so tight in front his equipment looked like a money bag. The short-sleeved jacket was a beltless, modified version of a bush jacket, with huge bellow side pockets.
To complete the 70s picture, Hank drives his Galaxie to the drive-in while the other men follow in Don’s Mark IV. If you want to discover whether or not Hank wins his bet, well, read the novel.
The men, and think of them as predatory hunters, spend a great deal of time tracking down women for sex, and so it should come as no surprise that some of their energies are devoted to escaping from women. Women are, of course, one of the big topics of conversation, and the men have various theories on what they term: stewardae. Apparently, in Miami in the 70s, there are plenty of stewardae floating around, and the fact that the men have given women who work as stewardesses a collective name should give the indication of how they view women:
Stewardesses never wanted to screw; with them it was all A.C.F.–analingus, cunnilingus, and fellatio.
In part II, Larry has joined a dating service after devising a way to deduct the dates on his income tax. Narrator Hank admits to once being on a “stewardess kick,” but he’s bored with stewardesses and nurses when he meets Larry’s date, Jannaire. Larry dislikes Jannaire because of her body odours and her unshaved armpits, but to Hank, Jannaire is incredibly attractive, and so he sets out to bed her.
Part III concerns Don who has returned to his wife and now leads a miserable, controlled existence living on an allowance. Larry narrates part IV.
If I had to pick a favourite section of the novel, it would be Don’s birthday party. Well actually Don has two birthday parties in the book; I’m talking about the first one. At this point Don has reconciled with Clara–mainly to have access to his child, Marie. Don “still detested his wife,” and the fact that he returns to her seems to diminish Don in the eyes of his friends. Not that this is discussed, but he’s treated derisively as though the appeal to guilt and morality that sets Don back in the domestic saddle is an indication of his weakness. Clara has the upper hand in the relationship, and she’s very effectively hobbled Don financially and mentally. To Larry, Eddie, and Hank, that’s breaking some sort of unspoken rule, and they see Don as weak and pathetic. The collective but unspoken attitude towards Don shared by his friends goes a long way to explaining what happens later, and again, if you want to know what happens, read the book.
So here’s a paragraph from Hank at the party scene:
And little fat Marie was also there, never more than six inches away from Don. When he was behind the bar mixing drinks, she was back there with him, “helping” him. If he sat down, she sat in his lap. He had a pool table in his Florida room, but she spoiled the games we tried to play. She always wanted to play, too, and Don let her. If she missed a shot, she cried and he had to comfort her. If she made one, she crowed. She also cheated, and Don let her get away with it.
If that’s not bad enough, here’s Clara:
Clara was a great cook, one of the best cooks in the world, but even her wonderful dinners were ruined for you because she had to tell you exactly how each dish was made, and where the ingredients could be obtained. No one else could get in a word, or force her to change the subject. During Clara’s vapid monologue, delivered rapidly in a shrill high-pitched voice, Marie made ugly faces, got down from the table from time to time to play terrible children’s records on the stereo, and greedily finished her food as soon as possible so she could sit on Don’s lap for the rest of the meal.
There is much to be said for the old-fashioned notion of having women serve the men first, and then eat their own meals at the second table in the kitchen.
These few paragraphs show the book’s flavour. If you’re offended, then you’ve been spared reading the book. If you think it’s funny, and want to read more, well you are a budding Willeford fan.
The four main male characters from The Shark-Infested Custard are intelligent, personable and employed. They carry all the markers of so-called healthy productivity, and yet scratch under the surface, and we have four unpleasant predators capable of horrendous acts. If these men are the “sharks” of the title, then it’s easy to extrapolate that the custard is the mores of conventional society through which they coast–lurking and unseen. At times they commit crimes and yet they are not what we would consider ‘criminals.’ This is Willeford’s subversive look at the culture of predatory males on the make. The novel includes some mini-lectures which seemed to be more from the author than the character at hand. Easy to forgive a minor fault when it comes from The Pope of Psychopulp.