If you’re reading this piece, chances are you just experienced the brutal, darkly comic world of Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser. (And if you haven't, there's still time. It's a quick read and available online.) It’s a place, if protagonist Richard Hudson is to be believed, divided unevenly into Insiders and Feebs, those who know and those who don’t. Hudson, a used-car-salesman-turned-filmmaker, fancies himself the consummate Insider, but ends up on the losing end by the story’s end. It isn’t a safe place, this world, even for those with an excess of business savvy, creativity, and madness.
I initially had a different book picked out for my first Wrapped Up In Books selection, an odd, finely crafted novel I love that would have broken the cycle of grotesquerie and violence that’s characterized these club selections so far. Then I read The Woman Chaser and realized I had to talk about this book with someone, so why not turn our readers into a sounding board? I hope you liked it. But if it didn’t make you as uncomfortable as it made me, there’s probably something wrong with one of us.
A bit about Willeford: I’d never heard of him before seeking out the book Cockfighter a few years ago after watching the excellent 1974 movie version directed by Monte Hellman and starring Warren Oates. Inspired by Willeford’s command of the nasty details of an ugly pursuit and the weird nobility he gave his cockfighting protagonist, I wanted to read more. Around the same time, I also watched Robinson Devor’s 1999 film of The Woman Chaser, a fine, funny movie starring Patrick Warburton. Weirdly, it’s never made it to DVD. And Willeford’s books are even harder to find. Even though he’s frequently mentioned in the same breath as Jim Thompson, Willeford tends to fall in and out of print, and his books can be tough to track down secondhand. Or at least they were. The digital age is starting to change that. I recently purchased an iPod Touch, and playing around with the Kindle app, I was happy to find that I could download a good chunk of his work for cheap. (If I’d known about Munseys at the time, I could even have downloaded them for free.) And so in a short span I read The Woman Chaser, The Pick-Up, Wild Wives, Honey Gal (a.k.a. The Black Mass Of Brother Springer) and The High Priest Of California, all books written for the pulp market in the ‘50s and ‘60s, all but one of them—the merely okay Wild Wives—ambitious novels about the state of post-war America written in gripping, vicious, artful language.
I’d especially recommend The Pick-Up, an immersive story of alcoholism, depression, and death that’s as compelling as it is depressing, right up to a final-page development that changes everything and nothing about what’s come before. Almost as good: Honey Gal, a noir set in the midst of the civil-rights movement—it plays with stereotypes, not always successfully—and The High Priest Of California, which features a protagonist—another used-car salesman, no less—with even more unsettling woman issues than Hudson in The Woman Chaser.
These are all books from the first phase of Willeford’s fiction career, which was subsequent to time spent as an orphan, teenage rail-rider, Army driver, cavalryman, tank commander, and poet. After releasing The Machine In Ward Eleven in 1963, Willeford focused on editing and teaching in Florida, breaking the silence briefly in the ‘70s, then again in 1984, with Miami Blues, his greatest commercial success, and the inspiration for a film in Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon series. Miami Blues—which I haven’t read, but plan to—introduced private eye Hoke Moseley, the center of three more novels published before Willeford’s 1988 death, just as he was starting to build a name for himself beyond crime-fiction aficionados and high-profile fans like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. (For more on Willeford, read this excellent remembrance from The Atlantic.)
Lap dissolve. Zoom in on: The Woman Chaser, a strange novel about Hollywood, salesmanship, and artistic expression in an environment where the necessities of commerce have led to some firmly established boundaries. It’s a tale told by a sociopath, albeit one with a point. I doubt this book, particularly its back-half filmmaking drama, could have been written by anyone who hadn’t spent some time laboring in the pulp market and getting chaffed at trying to push back at its limitations. The Woman Chaser challenges expectations while also being about challenging expectations. Willeford throws in the sex and violence a paperback of the time had to have, but that sex and violence is seemingly designed to make readers squirm. Hudson has a hang-up about his mother, he dutifully attends to the advances of a stepsister “by marriage only” with the passion most bring to washing dishes (“The penetration was swiftly accomplished; the act itself hastily concluded. The cigarette Becky had lighted for me was still smouldering when I plucked it out of the ashtray and put it between my parched lips.”), and he conducts an affair with a secretary named Laura whom he discards in the interest of getting some work done. The book is called The Woman Chaser, but Willeford’s publisher imposed that title on him. Willeford wanted to call it The Director, a title that gets closer to the heart of the matter. Hudson’s final treatment of Laura reveals him as a monster. But he’s a monster who, like Willeford, is trying to say something.
And what exactly is he trying to say? And is it worth saying? The book plays its cards close to the vest when it comes to the question of Hudson’s filmmaking talent. Is The Man Who Got Away, with its feature-length chase and brutal conclusion, the Ed Wood-like folly of a used-car salesman who fancies himself a director? Or is it the masterpiece he imagines? The book is locked into Hudson’s POV, and he’s far from a reliable narrator, not because he lies—he doesn’t—but because a high-functioning madman can’t be counted on to report on the world accurately. But when I picture the movie, all 63 minutes of it, its story of “Mr. Average American. The guy who has the job that's too good to quit, and yet a job where he can never go any higher,” unfurls as a tight, midnight-black B-movie classic, operatically trying to make a point about America using chrome, fire, and celluloid.
Maybe the quality of the movie doesn’t matter. The book may not be about The Man Who Got Away so much as Hudson’s compulsive need to make The Man Who Go Away, and to make it right and on his own terms. Here’s a man with a genius for car sales, or at least enough talent to never have to worry about money. He’s living the American dream of cash and easy living. He’s got an ache for culture he treats with Bartok and Joyce. He doesn’t chase women so much as wait for them to come his way. He wants for nothing. And it isn’t enough. He may be an Insider, but he’s Mr. Average American, too, destined for a memorable final scene, but not a happy ending.
Superimpose: A few more questions and observations.
• What do you make of Hudson’s mother fixation? It seems like it’s going to be a major element in the opening chapters of the book, but it fades away relatively quickly. Is it just another element that makes him a disturbing character? Or is he sublimating something into his work?
• Ignoring my suggestion that the question may not even matter, do you think Hudson’s movie would be any good?
• What do you make of the way the closing lines of the book echo the opening lines? (“Slowly, the heavy traffic begins to flow again on Crenshaw Boulevard, 873 cars one way every fifteen minutes; 927 the other way every fifteen minutes, toward Hollywood.”) The first occurrence seems like useful information. By the end, those numbers feel like they’ve taken on some symbolic value.