“The streets were dark with something more than night.” - Raymond Chandler
“When you’re an orphan at the age of eight,“ Charles Willeford once said, “you realize that you’re the next one to die. You’re vision of life is colored by reality rather than pipe dreams.” Still, in Willeford’s 40-year writing career in an array of genres — fiction, poetry, journalism, screenwriting, autobiography, literary criticism — and life as hard-luck urchin, Depression-era drifter, career soldier, seamy-side carouser, and unconventional college teacher, it’s a skewed vision, replete with pitch-black humor.
Indeed, it’s a droll noir that becomes immediately apparent with such works as Cockfighter, a book about the sport of cockfighting based on Homer’s Odyssey; Honey Gal, about an ex-accountant and novelist who pretends to be the new minister at an all-black church; and 1953’s High Priest of California, a tale about a psychotic and violent used car salesman that was rejected by Fawcett’s Gold Medal Books as “too weird.”
Nevertheless, High Priest, the first in what would become Willeford’s San Francisco trilogy (ending with Until I am Dead, later retitled Wild Wives), found a home with a lower-tier imprint of Universal Publishing and Distributing, which came up with a pulp-fic perfect blurb of sordid sorts: “The world was his oyster – and women his pearls! A roaring saga of the male animal on the prowl!”
The oddly fascinating Pick-Up came out the following year on one of Universal’s seedy sex lines, Beacon Books, who announced it in similarly sensationalistic fashion: “He holed up with a helpless lush. A story that builds to a shattering climax!” If nothing else, that serves as a succinct summation of Pick-Up’s structure, though the devil’s still in the details – boy still meets girl, but it’s not of the time-honored “meet-cute” manner that you see in the movies:
- … I lit two cigarettes and passed her one. She sucked deeply.
'My name is Harry Jordan,' I said solemnly. 'I’m thirty-two years of age and when I’m not working, I drink.'
Her laugh closely resembled a tinkling bell. 'My name is Helen Meredith. I’m thirty-three years old and I don’t work at all. I drink all of the time.'
Harry, once a talented artist, now an habitual barfly trying to hold down a job as a San Francisco coffee-shop counterman, is in the midst of his downward spiral into depression, self-destruction and self-deception, while Helen, having just run away from her marriage and from her domineering mother, is just starting hers. It doesn’t help that, as they begin their affair, Henry sees himself as “worse than nothing, a dark, faceless shadow, alone in the darkness,” and that, compounding the problem, Helen “always took my moods as her own.”
Though tenuous bouts of tenderness and twisted love keep them together, it’s mostly a match made in hell as they move in together, commencing a vicious cycle of insignificant triumphs and bigger failures – of cruelty, violence, a couple of botched suicide pacts, stints in the mental hospital, and, finally, murder.
Well, not quite “finally,” after all. The homicidal aftermath brings in the bigger nihilistic guns and shadowy ruminations about “the nothingness” of life, but before a concluding plot twist that's either inspired or way out in left field or a little of both, many gaps in the lives of Henry and Helen are bridged that help illuminate their backstories while adding to their tragic cast.
And sometimes you get the cynicism with the elucidation. As Henry says:
- I was bored with my dull life. I didn’t want to remember anything; all I wanted was peace and quiet. The silence that Death brings, an all-enveloping white cloak of everlasting darkness. By my withdrawal from the world I had made my own little niche and it was a dreary little place I didn’t want to live in or tell about.
That Charles Willeford is able to so deftly tell about this nourish niche is testament to his power and craftsmanship as a writer. We may not want to live in this “dreary little place” either, but Willeford makes it a compelling, affecting, and sometimes absurd world to visit for vicarious thrills and enthrallment.