The Not-quite Noir of Charles Willeford
The Machine in Ward Eleven
Four Walls Eight Windows/No Exit Press ($12.95)
The Woman Chaser
Four Walls Eight Windows/No Exit Press ($12.95)
by Kris Lawson
Charles Willeford (1919-1988) grew up an orphan who attended boarding schools when not running away to ride the rails as a hobo. He served for 20 years in the military and commanded a tank in WWII. It was during his military service that he began writing, publishing poetry, short stories, and pulp novels, as well as taking classes and earning his bachelor's degree. After retiring from active service, Willeford taught English for 16 years in Miami before becoming a fulltime writer. He wrote 16 novels, four autobiographies, poetry and criticism, and three of his novels--Miami Blues, The Cockfighter and The Woman Chaser--were made into movies.
Willeford's life occasionally overlapped into his writing. In The Woman Chaser, for example, Willeford--who reached the rank of master sergeant--introduces a character who happens to be a newly-retired master sergeant:
His face, with it's [sic] secret, knowing, covering smile, was a reflection of and on every commanding officer he had ever served. He had done their work for them, and he had received no credit, but he knew, and that was enough for him. There were hundreds like him in the Army, a not-so-secret society of non-commissioned officers who actually ran the Army year after year, watching tolerantly as the Reserve officers entered, served a couple of years, and departed in disgust with the system.
Willeford's prose is spare and laconic. What's riveting about his fiction is how he leads the reader gradually, with matter-of-fact descriptions, into a completely off-kilter world that the reader--and the narrator--see as normal, only to have the real world come crashing down on the head of the poor sap who's telling the story.
Although Willeford is often referred to as a hardboiled writer, his stories are neither classic noir nor entirely pulp. His style seems to be more in the Hemingway-esque "one man against the world" existentialist tradition, mixed with a healthy dose of post-war "Twilight Zone" paranoia. Willeford's first-person characters are lonely men who have been isolated by lack of family, by lack of meaning in their lives, and by an uncaring, machine-like society that punishes people who try to step outside their designated functions. And as opposed to the classic noir tradition, where women are archetypes or two-dimensional floozies, Willeford's female characters actually have a little more depth--not a lot more, but enough to get a sense of their personalities.
The Woman Chaser introduces Richard Hudson, a virtual orphan whose ability to manipulate people makes him a very successful used car salesman. Instead of being contented with the material trappings of this success, Hudson finds himself driven by the need to create something real, and coolly arranges his world to give himself the best opportunity to produce something amazing. Unfortunately, the creative goal he pursues is not conducive to his manipulations, which begin to rebound on him.
Hudson has a mother who has always spent her days dressing up as a ballerina and dancing in the basement, living off the royalties of a song her first husband wrote before killing himself, and carrying on a pseudo-sexual relationship with her son. Her second husband and stepdaughter are spiralling down the social ladder and are one step away from economic disaster when Hudson steps in and saves the day. The price he exacts is high: his stepsister's innocence and his stepfather's last remnant of pride. But Hudson ends up paying the highest price of all in exchange for pursuing his dream.
In The Woman Chaser--a title, incidentally, that seems to have been chosen for purposes of titillation rather than for its aptness--Richard Hudson visualizes the societal machine as a trailer truck brutally running over an innocent little girl. "The Machine in Ward Eleven" uses an electroshock machine to represent this process in a more intimate way. This title piece in a sextet of stories presents J.C. Blake, an inmate in a mental hospital who savors his memories the way other people probe a sore tooth or pry at scabs. Blake, a director, has higher ideals and expectations than his producers, and his career plummets. In despair he tries to commit suicide and is institutionalized. He enjoys being in the hospital, finding it easy to live there on his own terms, comparing it to a monk's cell and a womb--until he's told he will receive shock treatment. To Blake, the machine represents a living death, burning away his personality and his memories:
His memories, his ability to laugh at his follies and stupidities--when the chips were finally down, these were the only things a man had left to him. Otherwise, a man is a pine tree, a turnip, a daisy, a weed, existing through the grace of the sun and photosynthesis during the day, and ridding himself of excess carbon dioxide during the long night.
In his struggles to evade the machine Blake does everything, including debasing himself, to keep his individuality. The irony is that the struggle changes him into someone willing to accept compromise, someone who fills his role very well: a docile mental patient who is willing to trade his freedom in order to keep his memories.
There are three Blake stories in all, ranging from Tibet to Hollywood. The Blake stories at first seem to be in reverse order--Blake in the psych ward in "The Machine in Ward Eleven," "Selected Incidents," wherein a movie executive muses over Blake's life contrasted with his own, and finally, "Jake's Journal," Blake's memory of his younger days, an odd twilight existence in a lonely airfield in Tibet. Did Blake die in Tibet, and was the whole Hollywood dream just that, a dying vision? Or is the Tibet episode the result of the inmate's half-remembered, half-manufactured memories? Willeford provides no definitive answers.
The non-Blake stories in The Machine in Ward Eleven are entertaining and move quickly. "Just Like on Television--" is a darkly humorous look at the influence of popular entertainment on a vulnerable audience. "The Alectryomancer" brings in Willeford's interest in cockfighting parenthetically, but concentrates on the ability of a man to believe in something inherently unbelievable, even in the face of mockery, because it works for him. "A Letter to A.A. (Almost Anybody)" is another example of Willeford's bleak humor: an alcoholic discovers that no matter how low he and his family sink, sobering up may not be the best solution for all concerned. Willeford's not-so-subtle digs at mass entertainment, organized religion, and social service continue his theme: society will punish individuality no matter what form it takes.