Charles Willeford's Portrait of the Artist as a Used Car Salesman
by Doug Levin
When I hit certain moments in works by Charles Willeford (1919–1988), I feel like the top of my head is going to rip right off. This is my brain teetering on the strange mental precipice that is the hallmark of Willeford’s odd and destabilizing fiction.
And usually at these heady Willefordian moments, I laugh (nervously? maniacally?) as well. I’m not prone to laughter, but Charles Willeford makes me laugh.
What is the source of Willeford’s idiosyncratic impact on readers—an impact that has won him devoted fans, brought his works back into print, and made him an important part of the 20th-century American crime fiction canon?
In 1989, Richard Gehr. writing in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, dubbed Willeford the “Pope of Psychopulp” (making Patricia Highsmith the “Popette”?), meaning in part: (1) that Willeford has a religious following; and (2) that a special subgenre name—“Psychopulp”—is needed to contain his works.
I’m not altogether crazy about the term “Psychopulp” as a description of Willeford’s content, but the word does aptly describe the effect of his works: my psyche—my psychology—is pulped as Willeford’s fiction unhinges certain bourgeois American attitudes and beliefs.
I would go so far as to argue that Charles Willeford, in his best works, puts art, aesthetic sensibility, critical acumen, morality, and American ideology on a dramatic collision course. Yeah, pretty sophisticated stuff for a guy whose first novels were published by third-string soft-porn paperback houses in the 1950s.
The typical Willefordian antihero is callous, corrupt, self-centered, materialistic, and violent, but also insightful, charming, and witty. And more crucially, these characters have deep artistic ambitions.
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