When Keith first picked Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser as this month’s Wrapped Up In Books selection, I knew neither the book nor the author. I somehow missed out on Willeford’s entire body of work, despite his similarity to a number of other authors I admire (after finishing the book, the comparison to Jim Thompson seems especially apt), and I’ve never seen any of the movies made from his work. (Incidentally, it was interesting to hear that meaty, aggrieved Patrick Warburton played the roguish car salesman Richard Hudson. I pictured him throughout the entire book as Jon Hamm.)
Once my copy arrived in the mail, though, I knew it would be right up my street. First off, it was an older book than I’d thought – 1960, right in the dying days of the noir era, and set in the ass-end of a Chandlerian Los Angeles. Second, I didn’t know anything about Willeford, but for God’s sake, just look at the photos of him on Wikipedia. You know you’re in good hands with a guy who looks and sounds like a mutated blend of Hunter S. Thompson and Wilford Brimley. Finally, it was published by Black Mask, the classic pulp fiction imprint. I would later discover that this meant horrible typos and minimal editing, but it also meant the promise of a nasty, morally bloody piece of crime fiction. I cracked it open with gusto and raced through it in about three days.
At first, it was a little odd. It took a while to get going – at first, it seemed to be setting itself up to be some kind of heist novel, then settled into a weird psychological grotesque with powerful class elements. Then, when dapper, successful, and secretly bitter Richard Hudson ogles his mother and fucks his stepsister, well, let’s just say it takes a turn. The story flips so randomly, and yet so adeptly, between these story threads and the overarching plot of Hudson’s attempt to make a savage little film called The Man Who Got Away, the tone is often difficult to isolate. But that’s probably as it should be; Hudson is one of the most unreliable of narrators, as Keith points out, and one of the most interesting aspects of the story is that Hudson – who is often repulsively cocksure and confident – sometimes seems to be figuring everything out in his mind as the story progresses. In many books, this would be a weakness, but here, it’s the narrative’s greatest strength that it seems to be developing from page to page.
The Woman Chaser has many of the strengths of a classic pulp novel, and at least one glaring weakness. The sense of place is tangible; its L.A setting is both recognizable and eerie, and Willeford hits it again and again, from his descriptions of the tragic project housing (which, 40 years down the road, is even more ruined and pathetic) to the visits to the Farmers’ Markets and the long, dreary commutes from Valley to city. The prose is snappy and it moves, which helps the long stretches where you’re not exactly sure where the story is going; and despite the lack of violence in the early chapters (yes, that’s right, I’m complaining that there is not enough violence), Hudson’s delightful cynicism carries it over.
Unfortunately, the strength of Hudson is called upon a few times too often, because there aren’t a lot of other strong characters in the book. Most of them are reactive presences to his various passions and beliefs, and if The Woman Chaser has one serious flaw, I think it’s this one – it badly needs a voice to stand in relief of his. Of course, that voice shouldn’t be too strong; part of the depth of his character is discovering the layers of his self-delusion, his hypocrisy, and his unfocused anger. But it’s when his pompously stated beliefs about what the world is and how it works, his self-flattering spiels about the Insiders and the Feebs, run up against a greater reality that the contradictions in his character are most powerfully spelled out. We are rarely presented with anyone’s perspective but his own when he voices his often racist, sexist perspectives on the souring of the American Dream, but there’s extremely telling moments when we do. We see it in his editor, Tom Ruggerio, the first person who stands up to him in any meaningful way and hints that the world isn’t going to unfold itself to meet his uncompromising vision. We see it in THE MAN, the nameless figure of power behind the big desk (shades of the Coen Brothers’ favorite theme!) who tells him once and for all how things are going to be. And we see it echoed in two scenes that, for me, hold the key to the whole book: Hudson is filled with bottomless rage when his father-in-law, Leo Steinberg, makes the very sensible financial decision to go a certain way with the distribution deal with Mammoth Studios – he feels betrayed, cheated, robbed for mere money of the artistic purity of his vision. But earlier, we saw this same man wrench what we are told is an unforgettable performance in The Man Who Got Away’s score by the black musician Flaps Heartwell, and he notes, almost with a cruel pride, that he paid the princely sum of $20 for what he estimates is the world of a lifetime.
It seems that some characters will emerge as this much-needed foil to Richard Hudson’s delightful insanity – first it appears that it’ll be Leo Steinberg, then Richard’s mother (a plot development I’m clearly not alone in thinking sort of petered out right when it was getting interesting), and finally in THE MAN. But they never quite develop, and ultimately, it’s two characters that he uses the most as his doormats – the loyal ex-serviceman Bill Harris and poor, abused Laura Harmon – who are the ones who stand up to him and send him careening towards the conclusion that this typically doomstruck noir novel must have.
That ending is next to perfect, and, to answer Keith’s question about how the book’s final lines echo its introduction, it draws a nice contrast between the person Hudson thinks he is and the person he turns out to be. The traffic statistics at the beginning of the book are recited in a snappy and commanding manner by a man who uses them to demonstrate his knowledge and mastery of the world in which he operates; the same numbers, in the end, are a terribly random and sinister-sounding set of statistics spilled out hollowly by a man who has pursued a project to the ends of his ignorance. The Woman Chaser isn’t a perfect noir, and it could have benefited more than a little by letting some of the peripheral characters open up a bit, but in its pure, unshakeable cynicism, it’s a pretty damn fine specimen of the type.