Tag Archives: transgressive fiction

Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The High Life: Jean-Pierre Martinet

In The High Life from Jean-Pierre Martinet, Adolphe Marlaud (and the first name gains significance as the story plays out) is an unattractive man–a mere “four-and-a half feet tall (in heels) runt barely weighing eight-five pounds.” He lives alone on the rue Froidevaux, a “joyless” street he hates, where his main object in life is to guard and tend his father’s grave in the cemetery he can see from his window. The asthmatic Adolphe, who suffers from panic attacks, works part-time for the funerary shop on the corner. It’s a dreary existence, for this repressed, stunted man refuses to delve into life beyond its miserable surface. Arguably the most exciting parts of  Adolphe’s life are the sexual fantasies he harbours for all the widows that come into the shop, but apart from that he accepts the tedium.

My rule of conduct was simple: live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible.

Adolphe’s boring routine is disrupted when the morbidly obese concierge of his building, a widow known as Madame C makes it clear that they will be lovers.

It was a hostage situation. Maybe Madame C was part of a Palestinian commando group.

The widow will not be refused and so mild-mannered Adolphe whose timidity dictates his actions finds himself in this strange relationship as a phallus man”  with Madame C dominating their relations and Adolphe submitting with mixed feelings. He tries to share books which she rejects, she confides that she reads everyone’s mail (“you wouldn’t believe the filth I read.“) A crisis emerges when they attend the cinema together:

One evening Madame C wanted us to go out together to the movies. I wasn’t that keen on being seen with her, but as she insisted, I ended up giving in. It was a porno that someone had recommended to her, Barbara Broadcast, which they were playing at the “Maine,” just behind the lodge. I personally don’t have anything against pornos–quite the contrary–and I obediently followed Madame C. After all, a bad porno is better than a good film by Lelouche, or racking your brains over whether Romy Schneider is going to have an abortion or not in Sautet’s latest film. 

The High Life

The High Life, from Wakefield Press, is a slim volume. The story itself is a mere 26 pages, but don’t let the brevity deter you. Author Jean-Pierre Martinet packs a lot of subversive material into a story that another author would stretch out to 300 pages: the sordid history of collaboration, the sexual urges of a timid, unattractive man, and the pathological relationship between Adolphe and his obese mistress. The depths of the story ripple out far beyond the 26 pages. But at the same time I’ll include a few warnings for any potential readers: at one point, Adolphe attempts to serve a pert 12-year-old girl in the shop. In the hands of another author, Adolphe would be the sexual predator, but in this case, the 12 year old makes mincemeat of a drooling Adolphe. Other scenes hint as the repulsiveness of sex between Adolphe and Madame C, but I’ll emphasize hint. I found myself unfolding these scenes but then I folded them back up again–I didn’t want these images of “the ogre’s vagina,”  placed by the author in my head any longer than necessary. And finally, animals do not fare well in this tale.

My edition includes an introduction and a bio of the author who apparently only wrote a handful of novels. Jean-Pierre Martinet (1944-1993) also owned a bookshop (which failed) and I immediately felt a connection with him for stocking the shelves with “classic crime fiction.” 

Overall, I loved this transgressive story for its bleak, black, subversive humour and rather nasty outlook on one pathetic, twisted man’s life. Plus, Martinet could write. Here’s Adolphe chatting up a young widow:

I could have talked forever, the young woman didn’t know how to get rid of me, my tongue swelled in my mouth, it swelled enough to choke me, and my boss was obliged to chase me off into the back room, giving me little kicks, like I was some poodle that has had an accident in the living room.

Translated by Henry Vale

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War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.

[…]

Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

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Lives and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

She devils are beyond nature: they create themselves out of nothing.”

I expect that many people who read this post will have seen the film, Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. The film is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t really do justice to the Fay Weldon novel on which it’s based. The film with Roseanne Barr and her rival in life and love played by Meryl Streep is really very funny, but the book is much, much darker, and while like the film version, this is a tale of revenge, the book is much more subversive and its humour is black. You’ll laugh at the film but chances are you won’t have the same reaction to the book. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil was the first Fay Weldon novel I read, and it sealed me as a fan. Weldon is an outspoken feminist writer who’s come in for her share of controversy, and simply because she is a figure of some controversy, she’s all too easy to misquote. 

lives and loves of a she devilWhile Weldon’s work obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon’s frequent themes include gender inequality, female reinvention, female identity and self-image and the often vicious relationships between women. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil is a tremendously powerful story–the tale of how one woman, a wife and mother, is abandoned by her husband and replaced by a prettier, sexier woman. Rising from her despair and thrusting aside all societal norms, maternal concerns, & obligations the discarded woman eventually triumphs over her enemies. Yes, a story of female empowerment and a rather frightening tale of a woman scorned who, because she’s willing to go as far as necessary, learns to live her life according to an entirely new set of rules.

Ruth, an overweight, unattractive woman who’s 6′ 2″, is an excellent wife and mother. While she’s appreciated by her somewhat scatter-brained in-laws, she’s neglected and undervalued by her accountant husband, Bobbo, who at the best of times says that Ruth is “no beauty, but a good soul.” Ruth, who is virtually powerless in the relationship, does everything to please Bobbo, even tolerating his announcement that he wants an “open marriage.” She’s aware of his extra-marital affairs which he discusses with relish, but now Bobbo has fallen in love with one of his clients, Mary Fisher, a wealthy, prolific author of trashy romances. Ruth is trying her best to ignore the affair, but after a particularly degrading scene, Bobbo moves out of his home in the suburb of Eden Grove, abandons his wife and two children and moves to Mary Fisher’s splendid home, the High Tower.

Fay Weldon’s style is spare, low on descriptions and high on mythic qualities. This is how the novel, alternating between first and third person narrative, opens:

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.

Mary Fisher is forty-three, and accustomed to love. There has always been a man around to love her, sometimes quite desperately, and she has on occasion returned that love, but never, I think, with desperation. She is a writer of romantic fiction. She tells lies to herself and to the world.

Is that hate or contempt lying under the description of Mary Fisher? Probably a bit of both, but add envy to the mix too as Mary Fisher is the embodiment of everything Ruth isn’t: small, petite, feminine and highly desirable. And here’s a quote that shows just how well Fay Weldon can write:

Now outside the world turns: tides surge up the cliffs at the foot of Mary Fisher’s tower, and fall again. In Australia the great gum trees weep their bark away; in Calcutta a myriad flickers of human energy ignite and flare and die; in California the surfers weld their souls with foam and flutter off into eternity; in the great cities of the world groups of dissidents form their gaunt nexi of discontent and send the roots of change through the black soil of our earthly existence. And I am fixed here and now, trapped in my body, pinned to one particular spot, hating Mary Fisher. It is all I can do. Hate obsesses and transforms me; it is my singular attribution.

While Bobbo and Mary Fisher have the looks, the power and the money on their side, Ruth is dumped with the two squabbling children, a gluttonous vomiting dog who humps anyone lower on the totem pole, a cat who fouls the house, and an unfortunate guinea pig. Bobbo and Mary live in sex-soaked idyllic bliss while Ruth suddenly has to worry about money–how to pay bills and buy food (there’s one great scene in which Ruth directs the children to search the house for coins). To add to the worries, Bobbo tells her to move to a smaller, cheaper home. Part of Ruth accepts what has happened to her–after all, she reasons “to those who hath, such as Mary Fisher, shall be given, and to those who hath not, such as myself, even that which they have shall be taken away.”

Ruth has always behaved well and put Bobbo’s needs before her own. Why shouldn’t she accept divorce, destitution and displacement and be happy for the few years she had? But Ruth doesn’t see it that way, and she doesn’t react the way Bobbo expects her to.  Strangely, once removed from the position of wife, something begins to happen to Ruth. Liberated from her own repressive behavior,  “Hate obsesses and transforms” her, and she has revenge in mind. As events unfold, it becomes clear that revenge is an emotion that can take you to the place you want to go. Ruth abandons the roles assigned to her: doting wife, patient mother and begins a transformative journey–both literal and figurative, and along the way she confronts other women in various miserable circumstances including a clueless welfare mother who’s impregnated by a series of transient rogue males, a group of Wimmin, and also the much-abused wife of a judge who has a secret “passion for bondage and whips.” As Ruth continually reinvents herself, she leaves an imprint on the lives of everyone she touches, and rather magnificently, she becomes all the things her husband, to assuage his guilt, accused her of. She becomes a She-Devil who “creates havoc and destruction all around,”  and by abandoning the roles she is expected to endure, and breaking all the “rules” she plots her revenge…

Since this is a Weldon novel, the economic poverty of women is evident, but Weldon is not a man-hater; rather she revels in the power of sexuality, and she’s also very funny:

She’s such a good wife,” said Bobbo’s mother, moved almost to tears. “Look at that ironing!” Bobbo’s mother never ironed if she could help it. In the good times indeed, she and Angus liked to live in hotels, simply because there’d be a valet service. “And what a good husband Bobbo has turned out to be!” If she thought her son was narcissistic, staring so long in the mirror, she kept her thoughts to herself.

But Bobbo looked in the mirror at his clear, elegant eyes, his intelligent brow and his slightly bruised mouth, and hardly saw himself at all; he saw the man whom Mary Fisher loved.

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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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Post Office by Charles Bukowski

I recently finished Post Office from Charles Bukowski, and I can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this nasty little novel, so special thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal for steering me towards my first Bukowski.

A few weeks ago, I read Memoirs-of-a-Good-for-Nothing–the story of a 19th century happy-go-lucky slacker who’s basically booted out into the world by his frustrated father. When I finished Post Office, I wondered if we could also say that its anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, qualifies for the title of good-for-nothing. Well probably not as Chinaski does manage to stick it out at the post office for 12 miserable years, but in some ways Chinaski might qualify as a good-for-nothing as he doesn’t ‘amount’ to anything in the sense of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. On the surface, the two books are complete opposites, but then again after consideration, are they fundamentally so different? Both books chart the progress (or lack thereof) of their subjects. Memoirs of a Good-For-Nothing is the story of an eternally optimistic loafer while the protagonist of Post Office takes an acidic, sardonic view of life, but when the books conclude, both men are largely unchanged.

Back to the book.

The anti-hero of Bukowski’s novel is Chinaski, and I absolutely loved this character.  He’s antisocial, crude, profane and misogynistic. The list of Chinaski’s bad qualities is endless, but then again he does love his dog and shows kindness to an alcoholic ex lover. Most of the novel gravitates around Chinaski’s job at the post office, and when he’s not at the post office, Chinaski is at the track or bedding some new woman.

It all starts from a wrong impression:

“It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I thought. Soft! They only gave you a block or two and if you managed to finish, the regular carrier would give you another block to carry, or maybe you’d go back in and the soup would give you another, but you just took your time and shoved those Xmas cards in the slots.” 

Chinaski meets an overly friendly, buxom female customer who wants more than just a Xmas card delivered. This encounter impresses Chinaski who concludes:

“But I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes.”

He starts as a temp and immediately bumps heads with the  “soup” Jonstone AKA The Stone. While Chinaski at first swallows the party-line that the post office is a decent  job with great benefits, from his descriptions it appears as though the post office employee rules and regulations have been created by a sadistic madman. Someone should hang a sign over the post office door that reads:  “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” because it really does seem as though Chinaski has died and gone to post office hell. The average day at the post office is replete with mindless Sisyphean tasks while Chinaski battles the elements, the dogs and the people who seem hell-bent on making his life impossible. Bukowski captures the sheer drudgery, the mind-numbingly boring tasks, the petty office politics, and the endless rules that range from how often Chinaski can use the toilet to where he can place his hat.

But scrap any idea of Chinaski being a victim. When he gets off work, he drinks all night long, and Chinaski’s normal state of affairs is to begin the day with a hangover. It’s hard to feel sorry for Chinaski in spite of the fact that he hates his job, and this is because our anti-hero is always funny and he isn’t out to please. It never occurs to him to worry about what people think of him. Ah, yes… it’s so refreshing to read this character’s vision of the world.

It’s with women that Chinaski is arguably his most reprehensible. When the novel begins he’s with a  “shackjob”  –-a woman whose absence (she goes to work) frees Chinaski for his opportunistic sexual encounters. To Chinaski women are objects–no more, no less. They are mostly described by their body parts, and to Chinaski, the bigger the better. Here’s an exchange between Chinaski and his  “shackjob” Betty who finally decides she’s had just as much as she can take:

“It’s over, she said, I’m not sleeping with you another night.”

“All right. Keep your pussy. It’s not that great anyway.”

There’s a sense that Betty breaks off the relationship because of its unconventionality rather than Chinaski’s perpetual infidelities, and indeed Chinaski’s lack of conformity is a theme that continues throughout this extremely funny novel. It’s worth pointing out that while Chinaski treats the women who cross his path quite abominably, he, in turn, is also objectified. This is certainly true at the post office where he is treated as little more than a machine, but then again the women in Chinaski’s life–Betty, Joyce and Fay seem to view him as some sort of accessory to their various self-images. Why do they express surprise or frustration with Chinaski when the relationships fail? After all, it’s hardly as though he ever puts on a good front for anyone. With Chinaski, what you see is what you get, and whoever decides to be his “shackjob” of the moment must either be deranged, insanely optimistic, or in a state of some sort of chemical dependency.

Bukowski apparently referred to his own live-in girlfriend as a “shackjob,” and he also suffered years at the post office, so it should come as no great surprise that the novel is largely autobiographical. It certainly rings with an authenticity that’s hard to beat.  

Here’s Chinaski on the idea of “security” with the post office:

“Security? You could get security in jail. Three squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No license fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Roundeye. Free burial.”

Of course, those who’ve ever actually been in prison would probably disagree with Chinaski’s assessment of the ‘security’ of prison life. So here’s Chinaski discussing the hollowed-out shells of men after a decade or so of working as a clerk at the post office:

“They either melted or they got fat, huge, especially around the ass and the belly. It was the stool and the same motion and the same talk. And there I was, dizzy spells and pains in the arms, neck, chest, evrywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job. On weekends I had to drink in order to forget it. I had come in weighing 185 lbs. Now I weighed 223 pounds. All you moved was your right arm.”

Bukowski’s work falls under the mantle of Dirty Realism–although I’ve also seen it described as Transgressive Fiction. Post Office is not the only novel to feature Chinaski. Factotum,  Women, Ham on Rye, and Hollywood are Bukowski novels which are narrated by Chinaski, and Chinaski also appears in Pulp, Bukowksi’s last novel.

On a final note, in the spirit of liberation I made a point of stopping my postman, and I showed him the novel and suggested that he reads it as soon as possible. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again or if he’ll read it and head for the nearest race track?

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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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