Saturday, July 02, 2016

Charles Willeford's noir profiles, plus more stupid critical descriptions

In a different time, under different circumstances, Charles Willeford might have written lifestyle profiles for the New York Times rather than crime novels.

High Priest of California is the first of Willeford's early noir novels I've read, and it's less an unfolding plot than it is a grittier, funnier version of those retch-making Times pieces about where young urbanites like to do their produce shopping on a weekend.

The urbanite in this case is Russell Haxby, and the premise is the simplest of any novel I've ever read: Haxby, who likes to seduce married women, seduces a married woman.

And that's it.  But the details are so perfect, and, occasionally, so surprising, and they are so deftly revealed and at just the right time, and Haxby's cruelties so casual, and the simplicity of the plot and the brevity of the book (fewer than 100 pages) enable so tight a focus on Haxby that I felt as if I'd come to know the man and his world. Maybe High Priest of California is more like those book-length profiles by John McPhee, notably A Sense of Where You Are.

Some of Haxby's observations are hysterically funny, which reminds me one again how undervalued humor is in popular fiction. My current reading, Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, contains some excellent satirical gibes, but the review snippets quoted on the front and back covers ignore these and instead include such descriptions as "A prismatic story ...,"  "Epic," and, inevitably, a "tour de force."

Do these reviewers look down on humor? Are their solemnity and reverence signs of their own security about popular fiction's behavior in the company of its literary betters?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger Dan_Luft said...

I love Willeford but I have to say I never liked this book. When he was "on" he could be amazing and his second novel Pick-Up is fantastic. This book feels (to me) like a rough draft of "The Woman Chaser" which I really like.

July 02, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan: Pick-Up is next on my WTBR list. Ithink this was his first book, so the suggestion that it reads like a first draft of another book is plausible. Perhaps this book is a kind of charter sketch for The Woman Chaser.

July 02, 2016  

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