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?

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