30 July 2013

The Shark-Infested Custard

Some time ago I picked up a lovely hardcover copy of Charles Willeford's The Shark-Infested Custard from my favorite shop, Ziesing Books, for just a few bucks. Mark and Cindy Zeising are an actual mom-and-pop outfit (one or the other answers the phone when you call) in the tiny burg of Shingletown, here in "true" Northern California. (It's strictly web and mail order, there's no storefront.) I finally got around to reading the book last week, and have had a little time to digest it, and thought I'd try to write a bit of a review.

The novel has four protagonists: Don, Eddie, Hank, and Larry. They are thirty-somethings living in Miami in the late 1970s when the city was at the crest of its population boom. They are obsessed with women, drinking, money, women, drinking, and money. The story is told from each of their points-of-view, two in first person and two in third person. Willeford, being a master, handles the transitions and changes in voice with easy grace. He has a laconic, straightforward style, but is a keen observer and wonderfully concise. The surgical precision of his prose makes even the simplest descriptions interesting, and the dialog has a crisp, realistic feel. The men are not particularly likeable. In fact, they are boorish, sexist, racist, self-centered jerks. And a bit pathetic, too. When they discuss their problems and reveal their attitudes, though, Willeford's lean, hard-boiled style makes what they think and feel seem ordinary and natural, even sympathetic. They are who they are, and Willeford holds them up for scrutiny but not judgment. It's like they are in a fishbowl--everything about their lives is visible even when you want it covered up.

Therein lies the appeal of the book, at least for me. Miami serves as a sort of symbol of American moral and spiritual decadence, the characters merely mouthpieces for all the possible sins of men. They lie, cheat, and steal. They are dishonest at work and unfaithful in their relationships, yet they are loyal friends and help each other out. They have reputable middle-class occupations like airline pilot, security administrator, and sales rep, and are good at their jobs, but have no compunction about scamming their bosses and co-workers. They view women as nothing more than sexual receptacles and connive to stay out of entanglements or get out of the ones they fall into. But Willeford writes with such convincing authority you actually root for the guys to clean up the messes they make, and the messes are pretty ugly and involve murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and the like.

Charles Willeford is one of the highest-regarded of all crime/noir writers, and The Shark-Infested Custard shows off all his considerable strengths. It's viciously, scathingly funny, a dark, satiric look at The American Dream in all its twisted wretchedness. Few writers can handle such bleak material and turn it into a swift, readable tale, but Willeford is a particular talent. In fact, he should really be lumped in with "literary" writers and not "genre" fiction. His grasp of psychology and motivation, his unflinching look at ordinary, everyday evil, and his fluid, engaging style are light-years above many of the literature crowd's darlings. One of the most corrosive things the publishing world has done to the American novel is separate the MFA-types from the street-types, assuming that a high-falutin' degree from a famous writer's program automatically creates a superior work. I don't mean to say these things are bad--just that they are no guarantee of good. One day, perhaps, Americans will strip the labels off the works of great writers like Willeford, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, James M. Cain and others of their ilk and recognize their literary creations as substantial contributions to contemporary art and culture. Imagine if we read them in high school alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.D. Salinger! That would make for some interesting discussions, don't you think?

29 July 2013

In the Gutter

When I stepped out of the Powell Street BART station in the early evening this past Saturday, I was greeted by a panhandler asking me for a dollar. There were at least two dozen people standing at the crosswalk on Market, but he singled me out. I've grown accustomed to this--for some reason, the street people see me as an easy mark. I've been in groups, both large and small, many times in many cities, and I'm invariably approached while the others are ignored. I don't usually give in, and didn't this time, but on occasion, if the fellow is funny or creative in his asking, I will hand over some coins. My dad had a soft spot for the underclass, and often chatted them up, and his recognition of their humanity was one of his best qualities. On the other side of Hallidie Plaza, I turned west on Eddy Street and reveled in the fresh ocean breeze that whipped my face and jacket. It had been hot and stuffy in the transbay tube and underground stations. I was mere steps from two fellows being cuffed by four of San Francisco's finest. They looked like high school kids. I suspect they were nicking the tourists, whose free-flowing dollars the City by the Bay lives on. The next block was Mason, and I turned left again after crossing, and noticed that my destination was on the other side. As I went back down toward the corner at Turk to cross, a terrifyingly skinny and hard-bitten women hit me up like we were old friends, happy to see me and ready for a good time. I suppose, in my neat jeans, brown walkers, dress shirt, and tweed sport coat, I looked like a real rube, and she saw opportunity knocking. My refusal was curt, and she chided me for my lack of good humor, but turned away and continued on with her ancient profession. Finally, I found my spot on the east side of the street, right at the foot of Mason. It was six o'clock, and they were just opening the doors of the 50 Mason Social House. I was the first person at the bar so I picked out the best seat and ordered a Trumer Pils and waited for the show to begin.

The event was a book release and signing party. The star was local author and minor celebrity Will Viharo, whose Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me was just re-issued by Gutter Books. He was joined by Philadelphia-based author T. Fox Dunham, whose debut novel The Street Martyr was also hot off Gutter's presses. Entertainment was provided by San Francisco's own Aqua Velvets, surf band extraordinaire. Apparently Mr. Viharo wrote much of Love Stories with the band in the background, and they get a mention in the book as well. I got the chance to talk to guitarist and songwriter Miles Corbin and his musical partner and the band's bassist Michael Linder, telling them how much I loved their music, particularly the 1997 album Guitar Noir. Both were gracious and friendly. I bought two CDs from Miles and Michael gave me one of his own, a collection of bands he produces. If the Tenderloin was the perfect neighborhood for a noir fiction event, the Velvets were the perfect soundtrack.

Things got underway about seven. Matthew Louis, head honcho at Gutter Books, arrived and I helped him set up the table. I met both authors and two other crime writers (and Gutter editors) Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts. Everyone was in a jolly mood and the party went swimmingly. I'd met Matt Louis once before, only because he's from Medford, Oregon (an hour north of here), and I worked with him briefly a few years back because he published two stories of mine in his pulp 'zine Out of the Gutter. Those remain my only published pieces. I hope to rectify that in the near future. Matt is slight of build and his boyish good looks belie his incipient middle age, but the man's sinews are pure tungsten steel. He built his small press, independent publishing venture with sweat, determination, and a single-minded focus to do things his way. He has an eye for talent and a real ear for the kind of fiction he wants to produce. Take a look at Mr. Dunham's blog and his description of Matt's editorial intensity. In a world where the big publishing houses are increasingly swallowing each other up, and the same authors are endlessly hyped ad nauseum, readers like me are starved for new voices. The small presses are like microbreweries--most have no chance to compete with the majors. But some, through hard work and a devotion to quality and uniqueness, survive, and even thrive. I think, and I hope, that Gutter Books is one of the latter.

After the readings, book signings, and musical interludes, the party ended. I was fortunate to spend some time with Fox Dunham, who is a fascinating man. Originally from Scotland, he trained in the ancient bardic traditions with his grandfather, learning not only Scots Gaelic, but about the awen, the source of poetic inspiration. A cancer survivor and denizen of the mean streets, Fox has a palpable empathy for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. His reading from The Street Martyr had the crowd mesmerized. He inscribed my copy of his book "Speak for those with their mouths torn out." What a powerful sentiment!

Later, around ten o'clock, a small group went up the street a half block for a couple more pints. I was able to visit longer with Matt and his lovely and charming bride, and schmooze with the featured authors and the rest of the Gutter crowd, most of whom had brought their significant others. Alas, my darling stayed home this weekend, and I had to be on my own, but I had a grand and inspiring adventure nonetheless. I discovered that writers, editors, and publishers are real people, and that noir-types are regular Joes (and Janes). I had to dash off a little after 11:30 and catch the midnight train back across the Bay. My head didn't hit the pillow (I stayed at my Mom's in Benicia) until after one a.m. I was tired on the long, hot drive home on Sunday, but surprisingly fulfilled. Even the Giants getting swept at home by the Cubs could not dampen my mood. I plan to retire from my current profession--public high school teacher--in June of 2014, and pursue writing full-time. Whether it brings me success or not, I've come to realize, is not as important as the chance to discover things about myself. And if it brings me into more contact with the kinds of folks I spent Saturday night with, so much the better. Next up: NoirCon 2014 in Philadelphia!

23 July 2013

Did You Smile?

What does the Earth look like from space? Last Friday, the MESSENGER spacecraft, currently orbiting Mercury, photographed the Earth and Moon. On the same day, the CASSINI spacecraft, orbiting Saturn, did the same. If that intrigues you, check out Astronomy Picture of the Day ('APOD' to the cognoscenti). Hey, everyone you know--and I mean EVERYONE--is in those pictures. I'm sure if we were watching one of those high-tech crime dramas like NCIS or CSI we could get the resident geek-cop to "zoom in" and see our smiling faces. Funny, whenever I zoom in on photos I get less detail, not more. And I certainly can't read license plates! But that's OK, I like a good show, and I can live with some occasional lapses into techno-nonsense.

Saturn is about 900 million miles from Earth. Mercury is about 61 million miles away. You get that far away, you can't see much, just some dots in the vastness of space. And that's what we are: cosmic dust motes. In the big scale of things, humans don't amount to much. In fact, the bacteria cells we carry around in and outside of our bodies are more numerous than our human cells. Amazing notion, eh? The miracle of life is still a miracle, of course. But for now the only ones who can appreciate their own miraculousness are all in the same photo. And we don't look like all that much. I find the enormity of the universe comforting, not terrifying. I like the mystery, the awe, the wonder. I'm not afraid of uncertainty. In fact, I embrace it. Uncertainty means you get to keep exploring, seeking, questioning. Nature is pretty goddamn trippy, don't you think?

20 July 2013


Hot off the presses from Image Comics is the latest collection of the Ed Brubaker-Sean Phillips collaboration Fatale: West of Hell, which contains issues 11-14. I'm a huge fan of the Criminal series, which is as good as it gets in the noir/crime fiction  realm. Not only does Mr. Brubaker write tautly-plotted, compelling tales, Mr. Phillips draws the most beautiful pictures, and the combination is hard to beat. They preceded Criminal with Incognito, which mixed in superhero stuff with noir, something that should not have worked but actually did. These guys are that good. Now they are pursuing this strange horror-noir mix they call Fatale, and like Incognito I was not sure it would fly. But fly it does, soars in fact, showing once again that these guys are the real deal. Fatale follows a femme fatale, of course, but this femme spreads around the fatal without ever really getting fatal-ed herself. She's some kind of immortal being, not a real human despite looking like a cross between Ava Gardner in The Killers and Jane Greer in Out of the Past. She lives forever it seems, or when she dies she is reborn in another time and place. It's hard to tell, really. Very horror story-weird with lots of unanswered questions. The first two collections (Death Chases Me and The Devil's Business) were set in various decades of the 20th century and our "heroine" was called "Josephine." In the latest, we find "Mathilda" in both the Middle Ages and the American West. There's even a WWII adventure. It's heady stuff, and hard to tell where it is going, but I'm willing to go for the ride. The idea that the femme fatale is more than just a literary trope or a cultural icon but is instead an actual force of nature is a surprisingly fertile ground for a good writer-artist team. It's the kind of thing that demands re-reading, not just for the unanswered questions, but for the richly detailed art, in which I see something new every time I look at it. Keep up the good work, men. I'm ready for my next collection!