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Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler

“It’s a hard world to be good in.”

With the title Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, how could I resist reading this novel by American author, former English professor, Victor Gischler? I read this wild roller-coaster ride of a novel in one sitting and enjoyed every page. Yes, I know, it won’t win the Pulitzer, but who cares?

The glorious front cover includes a quote from author James Rollins: “Part Christopher Moore, part Quentin Tarantino, Victor Gischler is a raving badass genius.” I’d say Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is Duane Swierczynski on a trip through Mad-Max territory.

As the title suggests, this is a post-apocalypse novel set in the near future. The protagonist is Mortimer Tate, a 38-year-old insurance salesman. Correct that. Former insurance agent. And here’s how civilization ended:

No single thing had doomed Mortimer’s planet. Rather it had been a confluence of disasters. Some dramatic and sudden, others a slow silent decay.

The worldwide flu epidemic had come and gone with fewer deaths than predicted. Humanity emerged from that long winter and smiled nervously at one another. A sigh of relief, a bullet dodged.

That April the big one hit.

So long feared, it finally happened. The earth awoke, humped up its spine along the San Andreas. The destruction from L.A. to San Francisco defied comprehension. The earthquake sent rumbles across the Pacific, tsunamis pounding Asia. F.E.M.A. immediately declared its inadequacy and turned over operations to the military. The death toll numbered in the millions, and nothing–not food nor fuel–made it through West Coast seaports. The shortages were rapidly felt across the Midwest. Supermarkets emptied, and no trucks arrived to supply them.

Wall Street panicked.

Nine days later a Saudi terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in a large tote bag on the steps of the Capitol building. Both houses of Congress were in session. The president and the vice president and most of the cabinet were obliterated.

The secretary of the interior was found and sworn in. This didn’t sit well with a four-star general who had other ideas. Civil war.

Economic spasms reached the European and Asian markets.

Israel dropped nukes on Cairo, Tehran and targets in Syria.

Pakistan and India went at it.

China and Russia went at it.

The world went at it.

It was pretty much downhill from there.

When the book begins, our hero Mortimer Tate is holed up in a well-stocked cabin on the top of a Tennessee mountain. He retreated to this remote site with a pile of supplies nine years ago as a way of refusing to sign his divorce papers. In the meantime, civilization went to hell in a handbasket, and since the portable batteries for his radio ran out the first year, Mortimer has no way of knowing what is going on in the world beyond his refuge. Mortimer is getting bored and lonely when 3 stragglers from the outside world invade his zone. As a result, Mortimer decides to head back, check out what is going on and find his wife, Anne.

Big mistake.

Mortimer discovers that the situation is worse, and far more dangerous, than he could have imagined. Some people have banded together to form roving tribes of marauders. Other people band together in isolated, bizarre utopian groups. Still others have turned to cannibalism. But there’s a burgeoning form of society in a chain of Joey Armageddon Sassy-A-Go-Go clubs strung out across America. Joey Armageddon’s oases of fun and pleasure are basically economic trade zones. The clubs feature home-made hooch (Freddy’s Piss Yellow, Freddy’s Piss Vinegar Vodka, Major Dundee’s Slow-Motion Gin), its own currency (Armageddon dollars–a piece of metal with a “primitive stamping” of a mushroom cloud on one side), and go-go girls. The club lights and music are powered by chained prisoners who are forced to pedal stationary bicycles that generate power (remember those Roman galley slaves? It’s the same sort of philosophy here). With rare goods to trade for Armageddon dollars, Mortimer becomes a card-carrying, platinum member of Joey Armageddon’s go-go clubs. 

Mortimer hooks up with a man named Bill– a latter-day cowboy, a man who dons a cowboy outfit, complete with a black cowboy hat, an ankle length duster, and a pair of pistols. Bill is one of the few good guys left:

“I don’t know why I did it at first,” admitted Bill. “I always liked westerns, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, you know? Think about what a cowboy is, what he represents. The new order rolling across the prairie, right? Even when he was slaughtering buffalo and red indians, he still left civilization in his wake, towns and railroads and all that. I guess maybe I thought we needed cowboys again. Maybe not. Hell, I don’t know. Probably sounds stupid.”

Bill and Mortimer team up together to find Mortimer’s missing wife, Anne, who’s rumoured to be in Chattanooga. Once they leave the semi-safe Armageddon zone with its almost pathetic pretensions of civilization and order, Bill and Mortimer discover just how awful the world has become. It’s non-stop action all the way as the two men pick up stripper Sheila as the third member of the group, and together they travel to Chattanooga to find Anne. There’s no petrol available–although there are rumours that refineries may be working again, so Bill, Mortimer and Sheila find a range of ways (most of them dangerous and unwise) to travel to their chosen destination.  You couldn’t pay me to ride on the Muscle Express.

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse was bought on a whim, but this won’t be the only novel I read by this author. The novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and in spite of the fact that some of the action does stretch the imagination, this is a very visual tale. As I read, I found myself wondering just what would happen, what would become of ‘civilisation’ if the world ended? After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we got a glimpse of the potential problems the world would face with the collapse of civilisation: police shooting unarmed black Americans (and then hiding their actions), rumours of rape and murder, allegations of euthanasia of aged patients, animals abandoned, looting, & thousands of people stranded the Superdome. Even the governor made statements about the deputized troops sent to the area who would shoot and kill (with their “Locked and loaded M-16s”). What would happen to the world if a disaster such as Katrina were repeated but on a much broader, more destructive scale and then extended over years?

I read the novel, I decided that Gischler was probably spot on with some of his predictions.

This brings me to one of the complaints I read about the book. Some reviewers found it sexist. Women are bought and sold, kept in bikinis, and they also titillate the male customers of the Joey Armageddon’s Sassy-a-Go-Go chain. But since the novel is set post-Apocalypse, somehow I don’t think PC values would survive through the New World Order. Gischler seems to have a lot of fun imagining just what would survive the Apocalypse, and it is funny to note than humankind quickly resurrects strip joints, slavery and rotgut booze–after all, these are the rudimentary necessities, right? This is a savage, violent world in which people cling to each other to survive but the shared values of most of the loosely-formed groups are based on very practical principles. In Gischler’s world, there’s no time for sensitivity, but still time for humour. But lest readers should think that all the female characters exist as sex objects, here’s Tyler Kane:

A slender figure appeared atop the crates in front of them, looked down on the two passengers in the theater seats. The newcomer’s face wasn’t clear at first, a dark silhouette against the morning sun. Mortimer held up a hand, shaded his eyes to get a look. A woman.

“Don’t puke on my train,” she said.

Mortimer looked down, closed his eyes. It took too much energy to hold his head up. “Your train?”

“I’m Tyler Kane. I’m the train captain.”

She hopped down from the crates, and Mortimer got a better look at her. Athletically thin, hard body like a track star. She wore black leather pants and a matching jacket too light for the cold, a white turtleneck underneath. A nickel-plated revolver sprung from her waistband. Her hair was burgundy red, cut close on the sides and spiked on top. A black patch covered her left eye, and a thin white scar leaked from under the patch and ran straight down to the edge of her angular jawline. Her one eye was bright and blue as an arctic lake. She had the palest skin Mortimer had ever seen on someone still alive.

“You’re paying passengers, so you don’t have to do anything except stay out of the way,” Tyler said. “If we’re attacked, be prepared to repel boarders. If you vomit, stick your head over the side. Any questions?

And guess what? This is in production. Here’s a clip:

Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse

Can’t wait.

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The Shark-Infested Custard: Charles Willeford

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 Norton:

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 Miller:

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 Luchessi:

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.

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The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford

“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.

burnt orange heresyThe 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

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Wild Wives by Charles Willeford

“The rain hit hard at my window. It slowed down to a whisper, then hit hard again. All afternoon the rain had been doing this while I sat behind my desk with my feet up, doing nothing. I looked around at the ratty little office and wondered vaguely what time it was.

It wasn’t much of an office. The four walls were painted a sickly lime-green, and the only bright spot in the room was the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar with its flame-red background. Two ladder-backed straight chairs, a two-drawer file cabinet, a cheap combination typing-and-writing desk and a swivel chair completed the furnishings. The rugless floor was laid with brown and yellow linoleum blocks.”

In Wild Wives, author Charles Willeford presents us with yet another perverse protagonist. While in this novella, private detective Jake Blake may appear to be a fairly typical private detective noir character, as the story plays out, it becomes increasingly obvious that Blake is almost as strange as The Woman Chaser‘s protagonist, Richard Hudson. It’s amazing that Willeford wrote and published this in 1959.

When the story begins, Jake Blake is sitting in his dingy office located in the “mezzanine of the King Edward Hotel” in San Francisco listening to the rain outside. While he acknowledges that this is a terrible location for the office of a private detective, he admits that he “hung onto it” because he also lives in the hotel and because it was “cheap.” There is no work, and Blake is already in hot water with the hotel management over his bills, but Blake isn’t particularly perturbed. That afternoon, two women come into the office separately, and his life is never the same.

His first visitor is an annoying, precocious teenager who insists that she has the talent and wit to become Blake’s undercover operative, and while Blake momentarily contemplates giving the girl a spanking, he opts instead to send her on a wild goose chase. The second visitor is Florence Weintraub, a young woman with eyes like “freshly washed blackberries” who hires Blake to shake off two burly henchmen she claims are ordered to follow her by her overly protective father. As it turns out, Florence is lying. Her husband, the much older, and very wealthy Mr. Weintraub, employs the men to follow his rather wild wife around San Francisco. “She wasn’t the type who is hard-to-get; she was anxious-to-get.”

There are many fascinating aspects to this noir novel. The private detective who is hoodwinked by a beautiful woman is a popular archetype in noir fiction, but they usually have some principles to cling to when the web of deceit, corruption and intrigue descends. This is not the case with Willeford’s protagonist. From the start, it’s obvious that Jake Blake is perverse and amoral. There’s no gutter nobility here–forget Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe–Blake is as self-serving and opportunistic as they come. Blake descends into a tawdry affair with Florence that begins with a steamy encounter in the Knockout Club and continues through a wild ride to Las Vegas.

As Blake and Florence team up out of sheer necessity, it becomes clear that Florence is deranged and psychotic. But what about Blake? Is he any better? As the story unfolds, hints begin to appear that give shape to Blake’s perverse nature. Amoral, cold, and perverse, he’s more than a match for femme fatale Florence.

This is not as developed a story as The Woman Chaser. Some plot elements are sketchy (the art dealer, for example). But for those who want something a little different, this is an antidote for all those novels with gooey happy endings.

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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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Filed under Fiction, Willeford, Charles