Though Cockfighter, arguably his finest novel, was based on The Odyssey, Charles Willeford was primarily a reader of modern literature, whether pulp schlock or high art. At least that is the conclusion one arrives at after going through his reviews and essays. When, in an interview, Ed Gorman commented that Jim Thompson would rather read Jonathan Swift rather than mysteries, Willeford replied, “I read Swift in graduate school, so I don’t have to read him again, but I don’t confine my reading to mysteries. That would be too limiting... If you only read mysteries, you could easily become like the people who only watch “Donahue” on the tube and think that all the people in the U.S. are sexual deviates.”
As his Master’s Thesis, “New Forms of Ugly,” illustrates, Willeford not knew his modernism, but was aware of its philosophical implications. Amongst those he cites in his thesis are Dostoevsky, Bellow, Beckett, Kafka, Nathaniel West, Hesse, Joyce, Walker Percy, Robbe-Grillet, Himes, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, John Barth, Salinger, Thomas Wolfe, Waugh, Capote, Joseph Heller, Carson McCullers, Dalton Trumbo, Jim Tully, Camus, Michel Butor, Malcolm Lowry, Sherwood Anderson, Hamlin Garland, Erskine Caldwell, Pound, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Tom Kromer and Horace McCoy.
Willeford calls on these writers to illustrate what he terms “the immobilized hero.” Though others have pinpointed such a condition, Willeford at least coined an original term, while throwing a few names, either unfamiliar or under-appreciated into the cauldron of modernist practitioners. That Camus’s Sysiphus must forever push the rock up the hill, is one thing, but, for Willeford, the immobilized hero is content to do so. Beckett’s famous words, “I can’t go on, I won’t go on, I can’t go on, I will go on,” is not only a celebration of the human condition, but a statement regarding the writer in contemporary society, about which Willeford has few illusions: “[As] the electronic impact of immediate information forces literature of all kinds into microfilms where it can be stored and forgotten, the immobilised hero novel will gradually disappear.” Later he adds, “Instead of man reading about man writing about man writing, immobilized hero novel readers will be reduced to small groups of semi-literate men reading the immobilized hero novel as small groups of graduate students meet today to read Beowulf.”
No wonder Willeford opted for popular literature over literary experimentation and regular punters over high-brow readers. Nevertheless, writing, for Willeford, was not just a profession, but something akin to a subversive activity, what he called the Burnt Orange Heresy, a phrase that would later form the title of his excellent novel about art forgery. Back in the late 1960s, a couple years before completing his existential western, The Difference, Willeford, sounding like Marshall McLuhan trapped in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, wrote, “The only real difference between the rock-and-roll of The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and the rock-rolling of the Burnt Orange Heresy is the serial consistency and orderly arrangement of movable type rearranged by an unmoving writer for an immobilized and highly literate reader.” It can only occur in the hiatus that exists between experience and observation, which Willeford likened to the false calm created by playing a record containing three minutes of silence on a jukebox in a noisy bar.
Though those mentioned in “New Forms of Ugly” were important to Willeford, he relied on others when it came to the genre in which he made his living. For instance, in courses on the Mystery and Suspense Novel he taught in 1974, Willeford had students read Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s Little Sister, Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dorothy Uhnak’s Policewoman, Mailer’s An American Dream, and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Lawrence Sanders’ The First Deadly Sin. While in a study guide for students, he also suggested students read Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and Dell Shannon’s novels about the LA Homicide Squad.
When asked what writers had influenced him, Willeford replied, “I have no idea. I read a lot of people- Jim Tully, Nathaniel West, Robert Tasker, Jack Black, Dreiser, John Sanford, Malcolm Braly. But I don’t write like them.” Nor did he write like those he’d read as a young man: Wolfe, Joyce, Kafka, Henry Miller (”responsible for the honesty of my writing”), Kafka and Hemingway. For Willeford was, in a sense, trying to create his own path between modernism and pulp fiction. Yet it would take him, by his own admission, some ten years before he could find a voice that would allow him to do so.
A particular favourite of Willeford’s was Chester Himes. Singling out The Primitive for praise, Willeford maintains that its author was too hard-boiled and uncompromising to be widely appreciated. It’s no coincidence that a volume of Willeford’s autobiography is entitled I Was Looking For a Street, the same title as the novel that Jesse Robinson in Chester Himes’s novel The Primitive is writing, and Jethro Adams in Himes The Lonely Crusade.
As for Hammett, Willeford wrote, “Every year, when I remember to do so, I reread...The Maltese Falcon. It reconfirms a lot of important things about American life: The business of America is business; romance is a worthwhile delusion; it’s hazardous to sleep with your partner’s wife; women who engage in serial relationships will lie to you when the truth would do them more good; existentialism is a practical philosophy for urban males to follow; and if a man develops a professional attitude towards his work, he will probably succeed where others fail.” Amongst other crimes writers mentioned by Willeford are Joseph Hansen, William McGivern (Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder: “masterpieces of the bent cop genre of tough detective fiction”), Frederic Brown (Night of the Jabberwock: “bizarre and classic mystery”), and Ross MacDonald (“a major American novelist”) adding that the latter “was not a stylist...but he wrote with a great depth of feeling, and his characterizations ring true.”
But it was Ross’s namesake, the prolific pulpist John D. MacDonald that Willeford named as “a spokesman for our times.” Not only a superb story-teller, but, according to Willeford, a social historian and moralist, who “speaks as well for and of the Sixties as Scott Fitzgerald did for the Twenties, Nathaniel West for the thirties, Raymond Chandler for the Forties, and Jack Kerouac for the Fifties.” MacDonald’s Travis McGee isn’t “trying to save America, he is trying to save himself.” Though acknowledging MacDonald’s deficiencies when it comes portraying female characters and the dynamics of sexual relationships, Willeford believes a novel like Cape Fear illustrates that “the veneer of our modern American civilization is as thin as the gold on a rented wedding ring.”
One senses that it was a particular perspective, defined during the Depression, as much as a hardboiled style, that attracted Willeford’s attention. While many today have assumed that style- perhaps under false pretences- its accompanying perspective, derived from proletariat fiction- has become diluted in the libertarian cynicism of past decades. Not surprisingly, some of the writers Willeford recalls have, by now, gone out of fashion or have been simply forgotten. As an insight into his literary world- one that is in danger of vanishing from public consciousness- it would be fitting to end this investigation by briefly mentioning some of the more obscure writers cited by Willeford.
-Jim Tully. Willeford discovered Tully in 1935, age 14, while searching through the L.A. public library stacks. He had planned to write a book on Tully, whom he considered one of the outstanding writers of the century, but other commitments prevented him from doing so. “Together with Dashiell Hammett,” wrote Willeford, “Tully was the founder of the hard-boiled school of writers in the U.S.” In Willeford’s estimation, Tully possessed “a finer intelligence than he was ever given credit for during his lifetime.” An ex-prize fighter, chain cutter and occasional jailbird, Tully wrote a number of books- Beggars of Life, The Circus Parade, Shanty Irish, Shadows of Men, Blood on the Moon (all out of print)- about hoboes, prize fighters, circus performers, and other outcasts. Later he would go to Hollywood where he became Chaplin’s press agent. While in Hollywood, Tully contributed “additional dialogue” to a handful of films, and ended up writing about Hollywood movie stars for mass circulation magazines. So widely read was Tully that he could make or break most Tinseltown careers. Championed by the likes of Mencken and Damon Runyon, Tully was, at least in his early work, a true proletariat writer. It was Tully’s perspective as well as his writing style that impressed Willeford, who maintained that, since Tully’s day, little had changed in America: rich men get parole, the poor go to prison and the military industrial complex is as powerful as ever.
-Robert Tasker. Knopf published his novel, Grimhaven, in 1927, which Willeford undoubtedly read (Grimhaven was also the name of one of Willeford’s unpublished novels). Tasker’s book concerns life in San Quentin where, in 1924, he was sentenced from five to life for robbing a dance hall in Oakland, California. After relieving patrons of their money- but telling the band, “Not you coloured folks. You’ve suffered enough”- the police found him on the stairs, smoking a cigarette, an unloaded gun at his side. In San Quentin, Tasker, who came from a wealthy family, encouraged fellow-prisoners to write (the warden would complain that so many inmates were submitting manuscripts to publishers that Quentin was in danger of turning into a literary agency), corresponded with Mencken, and wrote his novel. Upon his release, he travelled to Hollywood where he worked as a screenwriter and occasional actor. A condition of his parole was that he was not to write about prison life; consequently Frances Marion, with whom he was having an affair, received an Academy Award for The Big House, which was essentially Tasker’s script. Unable to publish his second novel, and having no desire to take part in WW2, he went to Mexico where he died under mysterious circumstances.
-Jack Black. Another immobilized heroes. You Can’t Win was published in 1926, and later lauded by not only Willeford but William Burroughs. Another gentleman of the road, Black wrote about America’s underbelly: small-time criminals, inhabitants of seedy rooming houses, pool halls, brothels, mining camps, opium dens, burglars and hobo jungles. A small-time criminal, burglar, safe-cracker and ex-con, Black writes about a time when there was apparently honour amongst thieves. Before settling down to a secure life in San Francisco, Black, like Tasker, served time as a Hollywood screenwriter. Unlike Grimhaven and Tully’s classic tales, Black’s novel remains easily available (Amok Press).
-John Sanford- Willeford doesn’t specify which Sanford books he read, but they would have included The Old Man’s Place (1935), Seventy Times Seven (1939), The People From Heaven (1943) and That Land That Touches Mine (1953). Born Julian Shapiro in Harlem in 1904, Sanford, a committed Marxist, was a lawyer by trade, and a friend of Nathaniel West’s. It was West who urged him to turn to fiction and to change his name. After the publication of The Old Man’s Place- written in the style of James M. Cain and W.R. Burnett- Sanford went to Hollywood where he wrote the occasional film script at Paramount and married screenwriter Marguerite Roberts (True Grit). He would be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Rediscovered by Black Sparrow Press two decades later, his anti-racist People From Heaven- judged too leftwing by the Communist Party- would be reprinted in 1995 (University of Illinois).
-Malcolm Braly- His novels Shake Him Till He Rattles, It’s Cold Out There, The Protector, On the Yard and Felony Tank, were honest and evocative depictions of prison life. A burglar, armed robber and four-time loser who, between the ages of 18 and forty, spent most of his time in prison, Braly began writing fiction during his third stretch in San Quentin, and would write his first three novels while behind bars. Had they not been published by Gold Medal, Braly (1925-1980) might have been more widely acclaimed. Hailed by such diverse writers as Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald, On the Yard offended the California Adult Authority so that Braly had to wait until he was off parole in 1967 before it could be published.
-Hamlin Garland. An early American Realist. It’s Garland’s ground-breaking collection of short-stories, Main-Travelled Roads, published in 1891, to which Willeford refers. But Garland (1860-1940) wrote some 40 other books, including four volumes of autobiography, Middle Borders (1917). During his day, he was involved with various literary, social, and artistic movements, as well as a recipient of the Pulitzer prize. He campaigned for Native Americans,and was a proponent of impressionism in art, an unabashed advocate of literary and cultural elitism, and a dabbler in research on psychic phenomena. Thanks to University of Nebraska, Main-Travelled Roads, which explores the brutal reality of farm and rural life in the Midwest, remains in print.
-Erskine Caldwell. Once a best-selling author- those lurid Signet covers obviously contributed to his success- with novels like God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road Trouble in July, Caldwell (1903-1987) explored the brutality and tensions- racial, sexual and economic- of life in the American South. It’s a world of poor whites from the hills and backwoods of southern Georgia, where Caldwell was born. Willeford’s Cockfighter and The Black Mass of Brother Springer bear the Caldwell mark. After 1940 Caldwell was content to live on his laurels and spent his time touring rather than writing anything of importance. These days inhabitants of the New South might find Caldwell’s world- with elemental forces, buffoonery, desperation and hopelessness- somewhat offensive.
-Tom Kromer. Waiting for Nothing, published by Knopf in 1935, was Kromer’s only book. Born in 1906 in Huntington West Virginia, Kromer was another Mencken protege. Waiting For Nothing remains one of the great books to come out of the Depression. It was an era in which Kromer was an itinerant worker, scrambling for what crumbs he could find, and willing to try his hand at anything, from picking fruit to hustling homosexuals- a description of which would cause problems when it came to publishing his all-but-forgotten classic. Unlike Edward Anderson, Kromer’s hard-bitten view of the Depression was not something Hollywood could easily co-opt. Writing for a number of radical periodicals including the 1930s California socialist Pacific Weekly, Kromer contracted TB in 1935 and moved to New Mexico, where, having lost interest in writing, he taught in a school for Native Americans. When his wife died in 1960, Kromer, in poor health, suffered a nervous breakdown, and died nine years later, age sixty-two.
-Leonard Gardner. Not so much lost as missing in action, Gardner’s only novel, Fat City, is one of the great hardboiled boxing novels. Originally published in 1969, the novels takes place in and around Stockton, California, where Gardner was born and raised, and would be adapted, with a script by Gardner, for the screen by John Huston a couple years later. Other than this novel, Gardner has, to this day, published very little, though his stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire and Southwest Review. During the 1990s he contributed to a number of NYPD teleplays. Fat City, which takes place in gyms, seedy hotels and bars, prefigures the likes of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks.
-Arthur Crew Inman. Willeford called Inman’s Diary, published by Harvard University in 1985, a masterpiece. Subtitled A Public and Private Confession, it reads like H.P. Lovecraft crossed with Howard Hughes. At 1661 pages, it’s a extremely bulky but classic study of one man’s thoughts. Inman (1895-1963) was a would-be poet from a wealthy family who, after a mental breakdown in his early twenties, withdrew to his bed in a darkened room. At the time of his death, he had written some 17 million words and had filled 155 volumes. Amongst his entries were descriptions of contemporary Georgia and New England, as well as his own bigotries and fantasies. A mixture of social history and case study, Inman, who committed suicide in 1963, was a racist, inveterate lecher, and compulsive voyeur. A case of egoist-deviant as visionary chronicler of American culture.
-Don Robertson. “[Read] Dan Robertson’s Ideal Genuine Man, the best books I’ve read in years,” wrote Willeford. Reprinted by Stephen King’s Philtrum Press in 1988. Willeford must have liked Robertson’s characters- fat, troubled and ordinary. And that, in Robertson’s world, everyone, good or bad, suffers. Currently out of print, Robertson’s book is as vulgar as it is poignant. Having written two best-sellers- Praise the Human Season and Paradise Falls- Robertson is now all but forgotten. Said King, “[In] an age when New York publishers have become more and savagely focused on best-selling genre novels and highly praised ‘prestige’ novelists…guys like Robertson have become expendable.”
-Waldo Frank. Born in New Jersey, Frank (1889-1967) was very popular during the 1920s-30s when he personified the writer as rebel, hitting out at bourgeois puritanism and American capitalism. Educated at Yale, his radical socialist views appeared in such journals as The Liberator and New Masses. His novels, which advocated social and political reform were poetic, psychological, symbolic and, above all, critical of society. They included City Block (1922) Holiday (1923), Chalk Face (1924) and The Death and Birth of David Markand (1934). He also wrote about politics, like Our America (1919), Salvos (1924), The Rediscovery of America (1929), America Hispania (1931), In the American Jungle (1937), Birth of the World (1951) and The Prophetic Island: A Portrait of Cuba (1961). Once again, Willeford would have been attracted by Frank’s perspective and his analysis of society during the Depression.
-Dorothy Uhnak. Willeford was nothing if not democratic in his tastes. So long as a book was tough in perspective and written from experience. He would have been impressed that Uhnak, a retired NYC Transit Police Detective, sought in Policewoman to tell like it is, or, at any rate, like it was. In doing so, she preceded writers like Wambaugh and Petievitch. Moreover, she was probably the first female police officer to depict the travails of her profession, and would later win an Edgar for her NYPD novel The Bait which combines the police procedural with a multi-generational family saga. As her book illustrates, she experienced more types of harassment than even she was aware. Having grown tired of the discrimination, she quite in 1964 after 14 years on the job. Observant and angry, this is an interesting, if routinely written, portrayal of law enforcement during an era of repression and permissiveness.