Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Shark-Infested Custard

After registering my dissent on Kurt Vonnegut’s canonization by the Library of America, I guess that I have to come up with a better novelist—especially for those, like one commentator, who are “looking for wit, charm, and invention.”

They can do no better than Vonnegut’s four-years-older contemporary Charles Willeford (1919–1988). The two had much in common. Willeford too wrote paperback originals and he too found himself held captive in a “genre” (more accurately, a niche market). In Willeford’s case, the niche was detective and crime fiction. Late in his career, Willeford finally landed a multi-volume contract with a publisher of hardcover books. St. Martin’s Press released three of his four “Hoke Moseley” mysteries, the books for which he is best known, between 1984 and 1987. (The fourth title in the series was published posthumously by Random House.)

Unlike Vonnegut, though, there is little “naive” or sentimental and less that is moralistic about Willeford. His tendency, in fact, is in the opposite direction. Where Vonnegut’s mock resignation barely covers a conventional liberal outrage over man’s capacity for evil (“So it goes,” he says repeatedly in Slaughterhouse-Five), Willeford’s attitude is a derisive despair. “Oh, shit,” laughs a character in The Shark-Infested Custard, his best novel. “Here we go again!”

Originally written in 1975, The Shark-Infested Custard was considered “too depressing” by publishers at the time. It was finally published—by a small Bay Area house specializing in science fiction—in 1993, five years after the author’s death at sixty-nine. To call the novel “depressing” is to miss the joke, although it is true that “one needs to be a member of the family to appreciate the joke,” as Willeford once said in a critical essay.

The book’s title is the answer to an “old Miami riddle,” which doubles as the epigraph: “What is very sweet, bright yellow, and extremely dangerous?” A newspaper reviewer speculates that the riddle’s answer is an obvious metaphor for Miami, but Willeford sets his sights higher (or lower, depending on your anthropology). The Shark-Infested Custard is his image of man.

Not that I want to dismiss the novel’s detailed and fascinating portrait of Miami. Willeford is the best writer the city has ever produced—at least the Anglo half of the Miami model. He is one of the few postwar American novelists who is attentive to the fine and subtle distinctions that make one part of the country different from another.

About two-thirds of the way through The Shark-Infested Custard, however, much of the action shifts to Chicago, “cold freezing, miserable Chicago.” And yet nothing changes in the characters’ behavior. Their amorality does not belong to a city, but to them.

Four unattached men in their early thirties become friends when they settle in a “singles only” apartment complex, where all of the units are one bedroom, the “rents are on the high side,” and a man “could get all of the women he wanted simply by hanging around the pool.” Larry (an ex-cop who works for a security agency), Hank (a drug salesman), Eddie (an airline pilot), and Don (the Florida rep for a British silverware firm) are “charter members” of Dade Towers, the “first four tenants” to take possession. After a year there, they are close.

One night, on a bet, Hank picks up a girl at a drive-in movie:

She was about thirteen or fourteen, barefooted, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, and tight raggedy-cuffed blue jeans with a dozen or more different patches sewn onto them. On her crotch, right over the pudenda, there was a patch with a comic rooster flexing muscled wings. The embroidered letters, in white, below the chicken read: I’M A MEAN FIGHTING COCK. Her brownish hair fell down her back, well past her shoulders, straight but slightly tangled, and her pale face was smudged with dirt. She gave us a tentative smile, and tried to take us all in at once, but she had trouble focusing her eyes. She closed her eyes, and her head bobbled on her skinny neck.Within a few minutes, she has died of a drug overdose in Hank’s front seat. Her death is the error that determines the rest of the tragedy. For the four buddies, the girl ceases to exist, ceases to be a person, the moment she dies. From then on, she becomes a mere body (“The girl had voided, and the smell of ammonia and feces was strong”), and a practical problem (how to dispose of her without attracting suspicion). Not once do any of the men express remorse or grief or dread at early death. The closest they come is wondering whether to call the cops. Larry brings them up short:     “What’s your flying schedule?” [he asked Eddie].
     “I go to New York Saturday. Why?”
     “How’d you like to be grounded, on suspension without pay for about three months? Pending an investigation into the dope fiend death of a teenaged girl?”
     “We didn’t do anything,” Eddie said.
     “That’s right,” [Larry] said. “But that wouldn’t keep your name out of the papers, or some pretty nasty interrogations at the station. And Hank’s in a more sensitive position than you are with the airline, what with his access to drug samples and all. If—or when—he’s investigated, and his company’s name gets into the papers, as soon as he’s cleared, the best he can hope for is a transfer to Yuma, Arizona.”
The men are exquisitely sensitive to their positions throughout the rest of the novel. They are given neither to introspection nor confession nor moral calculus. When Larry invites his friends to “talk about it now” and then “forget about it forever,” another of men says that he is “sorry about getting you guys into this mess.” “We’re all sorry,” Larry replies. “But what’s done is done.”

They are sorry about the “mess,” the complication and the plotting and the stains that are left behind, but they are not sorry for what they have done, because they do not see themselves as the agents of their actions. Indeed, they are not. “What’s done,” and cannot be undone, is the inevitable and tragic result of their amorality—their innocence of their own capacity for evil—which substitutes for any other code to live by. Two murders follow, and then grand theft, and then another inadvertent violent death, leaving the friends with the problem, once again, of carrying away a corpse. It’s at this point that one of the friends laughs, “Here we go again!”

But the joke is not on them. Larry, who narrates the first and last part of the four-part novel, thinks of himself as a good man, who is willing to do what it takes to protect his friends: “A man who is willing to accept responsibility is always loaded down with more and more of it,” he says, trying to account for the series of misfortunes in which his friends become entangled, “because there aren’t that many men around who will accept responsibility.” The joke is that his responsibility is not moored to anything. Larry and his three friends drift on the warm sunny breezes of moral fashion, congratulating themselves on the lives they have made for themselves.

Perhaps no more terrifying vision of the human experience, an inviting dish of happiness and self-fulfillment infested by the amoral predator called man, has ever been written, in a more bizarrely charming and witty prose.

Update: In a defense of the liberal arts, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson warns that business and finance can never be the “core elements in general-education requirements,” no matter how popular they become as undergraduate majors. “[T]he liberal arts train students to write, think, and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge,” Hanson writes. “Without that foundation, it is harder to make—or demand from others—logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.”

As much as I admire Hanson, I do not find this defense particularly persuasive. It adopts the instrumentalist reasoning of business and finance, at which the liberal arts will always prove to be mediocre. The Shark-Infested Custard offers a far more forceful defense. Without the liberal arts, which lead homo sapiens to become human beings, men become the amoral drifters of Willeford’s novel, sensitive to their position—their needs, their careers, their comforts—but to little else. Without that foundation, they are perfectly capable of making informed management decisions; Willeford’s men are skilled and successful. They are not capable of moral agency, however.


Unknown said...

Check out this video about the lives and times of MFA grads:

D. G. Myers said...


For a contrary view, see this recent post by Jake Seliger.

Tom Beshear said...

A great choice -- but I'll not hold my breath for the LoA to take action.

Willeford's heroes/villains are amoral know-it-alls, from the guys in Custard to the artist in The Burnt Orange Heresy or even Hoke Moseley and "Junior" Frenger (sp?) in Miami Blues. They know the best way to do anything and are happy to share. Having read some of Willeford's autobiography and other non-fiction writings, it's a trait their creator shared.

It was tragic when he died -- he was on the verge of breaking out after a long, struggling career. But perhaps it's fitting as well -- it could be the ending to one of his own books.

D. G. Myers said...

Willeford is represented in the Library of America, by the way—by perhaps his worst book. Robert Polito, the biographer of Jim Thompson, selected Pick-up for the second volume of the Library’s Crime Novels. The selection does Willeford no service.

D.N. Stuefloten said...

I always thought Vonnegut overrated, and Williford underrated. But still, Vonnegut had an interestingly craggy face, and a wild hairdo. That counts for something...doesnt it?

Tom Beshear said...

Pick-Up? I had no idea. That's too bad. It's one of his least.

Guy Pursey said...

Thanks for this recommendation. And I agree with your update; I'd say easier decision-making is not a reason to decide to study the liberal arts!

Having read a fair few Vonnegut novels, I think Willeford is going to be one to look up in the New Year.

Guy Pursey said...

Oh and here's Bellow, perhaps saying (if we're being generous) what Victor Davis was trying to say, only with much more eloquence:

Because he thought and cared about belief. (Without which human life is simply the raw material of technological transformation, of fashion, salesmanship, industry, politics, finance, experiment, automatism, et cetera, et cetera. The whole inventory of disgraces which one is glad to terminate in death.)

Now there's a reason! Only I can't work out if Bellow is being ironic here or not — it's the "simply" which throws me.

Shelley said...

Sorry to be off the topic of Willeford, but it might be a good time for us to do some Paul Revere-ing on the Internet--today the FCC is passing down the first of the Net Neutrality rulings. Al Franken on HuffPo (scroll down middle column) says we should be outraged, and he doesn't usually exaggerate. The Internet should not be headed toward corporate blogs buying the fast lane and the rest of us stuck in slow.

Not sure where to make our voice heard, by emailing the White House or maybe the FCC page with How To Make ECFS Express Comments? It might be good if non-corporate websites like ours had a community way for us to alert each other when something important like this comes up. Just FYI.