RARA-AVIS: Recent reads -- a whole lotta Willeford

From: Doug Bassett ( dj_bassett@yahoo.com)
Date: 08 Oct 2004

Continuing the Willeford theme, I've recently reread THE SHARK-INFESTED CUSTARD THE BURNT-ORANGE HERESY COCKFIGHTER

Right now I'm rereading THE BLACK MASS OF BROTHER SPRINGER with PICK-UP the last in the bunch. That leaves me with only HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA/WILD WIVES, the two volumes of autobiography (I had heard the recent editions of these were poorly edited and typeset, is that true?) and, if I can ever find it, THE HOMBRE FROM SONORA.

It's striking to me how many Willeford novels are not crime novels, which goes to show "hardboiled" is an approach, not a description of a subgenre. ORANGE isn't even a hardboiled novel, maybe at best you might squeeze it into a noirish Highsmith-style thriller, but what it seems to me most of all is a parable, an explication of Willeford's oddball, mordant world view. (It's a very "literary" book, in many respects, and I'm surprised that the highbrow set haven't taken to it more than they have.) I think it's one of Willeford's best books -- Block's description of it as a "shaggy dog" story isn't too far off the mark, but Willeford seems to have viewed life itself as sort of a shaggy dog story, so it manages to be profound and pointless at the same time, no little trick.

In ORANGE there's an exchange about Hemingway's DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON, where the protagonist says it's about bullfighting, but also Hemingway himself. Seen in that light, COCKFIGHTER feels like Willeford's try at a DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON book, with cockfighting substituting for bullfighting. Sort of the companion piece to ORANGE, a more optimistic take on many of the same themes, I think it ultimately chokes on too many cockfighting details to be entirely successful, but it does manage to be curiously life-affirming despite it all. Individual instances of cockfighting in the book are pretty fascinating.

THE SHARK-INFESTED CUSTARD is a more straightforward crime book. It's not a novel, though, so much as a loosely linked series of short crime stories, all centering around four of the typical Willeford affectless psychos who live in a singles community. There are people who apparently really like this book, but it's always struck me as minor Willeford. The best story is probably the third one, which ends pretty devastatingly.

I wonder if Willeford every wore jumpsuits -- he certainly sings their praises enough, both in CUSTARD and the Moseley books.


===== Doug Bassett dj_bassett@yahoo.com

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 08 Oct 2004 EDT