Thursday, July 30, 2009

missed it the first time, hard-boiled edition: Pick-Up by Charles Willeford

For a nice a summer reading experiment, every Thursday in July, we've looked at a hard-boiled or crime noir story. This is the last one in the series--crime noir in the widest sense, as the only crimes are the ones the characters perpetuate against themselves.

And later this afternoon, an interview with an author of a modern, kind-of crime noir story.

Previous entries:
Double Indemnity by James Cain
Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler Double
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Down There by David Goodis

Pick-Up by Charles Willeford
Beacon Books, 1955
Charles Willeford on Wikipedia

This is that slippery slope. When there's a place, you're in it and there's no way to know how you got there and when you got there and everything looks the same. Charles Willeford creates that effect wonderfully, where every action is rationalized, makes sense, maybe not the perfect sense.

And that's the place that Harry finds himself. A few innocent drinks leads to a nice one night one stand with Helen. Harry is quickly smitten and when she re-appears the next night, he quickly throws his apron aside from his back counter restaurant job and goes drinking with Helen. And so it goes. Willeford never gives more background than necessary, so Helen and Harry wander through a few week binge of long nights, long dinners and longer drinks. A few touching moments occur in their crazy binge--Helen encourages Harry to take on painting again, his portrait of her comes out fine and flattering, his perspective of her colored through the rosiest glasses imaginable. When they hit a bottom of sorts, Harry suggests going to a hospital for free care. The questions by the doctor almost causes a double take by the reader, they are unnerving, uncommon, unimaginable in their current narrative form. It is not that Harry is the classic 'unreliable narrator,' he is more like an uninformed narrator, or a withheld narrator--details important to the story aren't important from Harry's perspective.

Pick-Up is an early look at co-dependency, a portrayal of the symbiosis needed to continue to binge, to continue to overindulge...Harry and Helen are not both alcoholics, but they need each other to convince the other one that everything will be alright.

This is also the darker side of the perceived boho lifestyle, money runs out quick, Harry does not discover an audience for his art until he becomes sensationalized through his actions, everyone wants his story, his craziness. Except we never get the impression that he's crazy, maybe a little misguided, a little uncaring, a little loose with his cash.

But the wallop that Willeford hits with in the last sentence, a whopper for 1955 shows how skilled Willeford is and everything is thrown into play again. It is in the best tradition of the classic stinger, the one punch that no one saw coming but makes all the sense in the end. How to pull it off today in a similar story is too hard, too difficult, our taboos almost fully disperse to no meaning.

This is definitely not "hard-boiled" per se and comes into the "crime noir" side of things--a stab into the deep stumble through the dark. Continually Harry fails at failing,can't even be the right kind of criminal. There's no sadness for Harry in his sorry descent, we're sad that he can't descend further, because that's all he really wants.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, and the best author of all...

    ReplyDelete

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