Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: Strange by Charles Willeford

Reading The Woman Chaser made me a Charles Willeford fan on the spot. I even dug the film version, which a lot of people didn’t seem to get. (It was perfect for Patrick Warburton’s idiosyncratic style—the same one that made him the only person who could have possibly played The Tick.) I’ve been anxious to read more from the godfather of Miami noir, so I jumped when Strange showed up as an e-book deal.

Willeford is one of those authors whose own life is as interesting as the characters he created. He won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart in the Army in World War II, then enrolled in the graduate program to study art at the Universitarias de Belles Artes in Lima. He was kicked out when it came to the university’s attention that he not only didn’t have an undergraduate degree, but also had neglected to graduate from high school. No matter. Willeford later enlisted in the Air Force, worked as a boxer, a horse trainer, and a radio announcer, and —oh, yes—wrote a bunch of novels.

It should be no surprise that the folks who populate Willeford’s books are a bit quirky. Strange feels unconventional from the get-go, though the men hanging around an apartment swimming pool swilling martinis should be mundane enough. Maybe it’s the fact that the martinis are in plastic cups. Maybe it’s the creepy vibe of the singles-only building, or the increasingly crude talk of the bachelors. There’s a decidedly swank ‘50s feel to the scene, although it was written in the ‘70s—a fact I didn’t catch on to until one of the men appears in a magenta double-knit suit and is deemed well-dressed.

The men spend most of their conversation in talking about women and the procuring of them. A good-natured argument about the best place to pick up women soon turns into one about the worst place to pick them up. After various suggestions are discarded (even church is deemed a good place to get lucky, at least to one bachelor), it's agreed that the drive-in is the worst. Women don't tend to go to drive-ins alone, they concur, and if one did, she'd probably not take kindly to being mashed on.

A bet ensues, and while one man attempts to score, the others hang around to witness what they think will be his failure. This is noir, so of course they get more than they bargained for, and a sequence of events lands a dead, overdosed 14 year-old girl in their apartment. How the men choose to deal with this difficulty is what makes the tale even more noir.

Eddie said: “What do you think, Fuzz-O?”
“About what?”
“The whole thing, D’you think we’ll get away with it?”
“I’m worried about Don.”
“You don’t have to worry about Don,” Eddie said. “Don’s all right.”
“If I don’t have to worry about Don,” I said, I don’t have to worry about anything.”
“You don’t have to worry about Don,” Eddie said.
“Good. If you don’t scratch a sore, it don’t supparate.”
“Hey! That’s poetry, Larry.”

Part of what keeps the story cool is the matter-of-factness with which it's told. There's a good, natural rhythm to it, with a nasty streak that runs throughout. The grime isn't hidden down some alley, though; it's right out in the open. Willeford spools it out at a sneaky pace, and the men, who seem pretty innocuous at first, slowly become more and more slimy and grotesque. You can easily see how women might fall for their good looks and cool words at the bar, but just as easily see how lucky they are that these men won’t stick around. 

I didn't know when I started reading it that Strange  is actually the opening segment of The Shark-Infested Custard, a four-part book. It stands well on its own, but if you aim to read all things Willeford, skip this one, and go straight to Shark. (I’m a little peeved that Amazon doesn’t make it more clear that it’s part of a larger work.) If you’re not ready to invest in the whole thing, though, Strange is a good way to get your feet wet with Willeford and with Miami noir.

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