From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 14 Jul 2003

PICK-UP (1955) was the first Charles Willeford novel I ever read, around 1990 or 1991. I got it because it was reprinted by Black Lizard, and I was buying anything they put out. (I bet a lot of us did that, and that's why we're here today.) I remember being confused because the setting of the book didn't match the original publication date they mentioned (1967), but they were referring to an earlier reprint.

I thought it was great when I read it back then. I just reread it for the first time since, and to my surprise I didn't like it as much. The first half, where Harry and Helen drink, actually seemed dull. Perhaps I'm just not as interested in reading about the depressing lives of relentless alcoholics. I'd forgotten Harry was an artist, though, and was interested to see Willeford had used painting there (and in WILD WIVES, where there's a Klee collector--Klee is mentioned in PICK-UP). When Helen died and Harry went to jail, that's where things seemed to click into place and I was back in Willeford territory--the matter-of-factness of it all, the desire for peace and quiet in a cell, the police and lawyers he meets, the irony of his art finally becoming valuable.

We've talked about the famous last two lines of the book. I won't quote them, but when you read the book for the first time, they cast everything that happened in a new light. This time I looked for clues along the way and found one or two, but mostly I was interested at how Willeford described people such as Harry's bosses and Big Mike. The last two lines seem to me a bit like the Continuum Hypothesis, if you'll allow me a mathematical analogy [1]. The Continuum Hypothesis is an important thing in set theory and basic math, but it can't be proven true and it can't be proven false. Everything works if you assume it's true, and everything works if you assume it's false. You could analyze PICK-UP with and without the last two lines, and it'd work perfectly both ways. Neither version is better than the other.

WILD WIVES (1956) was Willeford's next book, his third, written the year he left the army and turned 37. It's a fair bit shorter than PICK-UP, and a bizarre hardboiled PI story. Jake Blake gets mixed up with a teenaged girl who wants to be a detective, a gay man who wants to be free of his young boyfriend, and a crazy woman. It's a strange story, with the traditional elements of a hardboiled story (especially getting hit on the head or knocked out) mixed up with Willeford's humour, violence, surrealism, and matter-of-fact violence. At one point Blake brutally attacks a man and leaves him a bloody mess on the floor, then goes back to his room and comments, "My blue gabardine was a ruined. I felt more than a little unhappy about it."


[1] http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_hypothesis

William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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