High Priest of California – Charles Willeford (Beacon Book #130, 1953)
The second half of this two-book edition, High Priest of California, now has me hooked on Willeford (note Beacon spelled his name “Williford” on the cover — how’s that for a writer’s first book?). I discussed Wild Wives last month, it was all right but didn’t make me a fan yet.
The narrator of this fast-paced 30,000-word short novel is used car salesman Russell Haxby. He has little-to-no morals and scruples, but he is capable of falling in love — or so he tells Alyce, a timid woman he meets at a dance hall one nigh. As much as Alyce seems interested in romance, she freezes up whenever he kisses her, and doesn’t know much about sex or men or what to do in an intimate situation…
She only wants to meet Russell in public places, and has him drop her off two blocks from her home. He soon finds out she is married, but her husband — who is much older than she, a friend of her dead father’s, who had his designs on her since she was a little girl, marrying her at age 19 — is an invalid, having lost his mind from years of syphillis gestating inside his blood stream for years. He gets jealous, but like a little kid, and is placated if put in front of a TV or in the movie house. Alyce has had him committed but they have run out of money to keep him in the crazy house.
Seems Alyce knew nothing about sex when she married the guy at 19, and although he gave her medical books to look at, they never really had an intimate relationship, thus she has no idea what to really do when Russell kisses or touches her.
Russell feels he can teach her to be a sexual woman, but first he must get rid of that husband. He’s not a faithful guy — he has several women on the side, good for drinking with and occasional casual sex. He’s a heel all right.
At work, he’s a heel who wheels and deals and rips people off, making them think they’re getting a good deal on a used car, not knowing they are lemons or worth less than Russell claims (like a $75 car sold for $180). Russell has no morals when it comes to making a buck or making a gal — even the mechanic on the lot says, “You don’t have a conscience.”
This reminds me a lot of any classic Orrie Hitt novel — the narrator jumbling several women, plotting a murder, and fast-talking sales for a quick profit.
Each sentence is precise, and there are clues you don’t realize until later. Russell also talks about the odd meals he eats — an onion and salami sandwich, an anchovie omelet, 20 slice of bacon with four sunnyside-up eggs. He’s a casual drinker and smoker like many early 50s men, age 33.
On his free time, he likes to re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses, sit at the typewriter, and rewrite the book. He admires and envies Joyce.
I made a cucumber and avacado sandwich and brewed a pot of coffee [...] James Joyce’s Ulysses and Stuart Gilbert’s Study were side by side in the bookstacks. I took the books to the desk and started to work.
As a rule, Ulysses never fails me. I worked for an hour taking archaic words from the text and converting them into words of current usage. After changing the words in paragraph, would rewrite the paragraph in simple terms. I’d been doing this for years as a form of relaxation and had a good-sized pile of manuscripts stacked up. Someday I planned to write a book describing the system I worked by, and would use my converted text as an appendix. It was a brilliant idea and would pay off someday, plus bringing a great book to a simple-minded audience. (p. 45, the Black Mask Books edition, 2005)
We know, or think by genre conventions, that he’s headed for something bad; he’s just too sure of himself and doesn’t care about anyone but himself. Or is he? Is he as untouchable by the universal laws of karma? He drives a different car each day, taking whatever vehicle is available on the lot, in the name of showing it off to sell. He parks illegally and tears up tickets since the cops will never trace the ticket to him, per se. He occasionally snaps, like opening a bottle of booze in a store and drinking, and then tossing the bottle at the clerk when he’s told he can’t do that.
This is why he thinks he can get rid Alyce’s (the spelling of Alyce’s name seems Joycean now) husband and get away with it — he gets away with just about anything. He tries to talk into despair so he’ll jump out the window.
Be careful what you wish for — when Alyce is free and all his, and she finally submit to him sexually, he’s no longer interested: “I thanked the Lord and all the stone gods on Easter Island I wasn’t married to her.”
In Orrie Hitt’s books — and many of these vintage tales — the heel gets his, karma comes around, he learns a lesson. Not so here. Russell goes on being the same asshole heel he was, without repercussion. This is what makes this fine little book stick out from the rest: it addresses a truth, a reality, usually not found in genre fiction.
This is also why the French loved Amercan noir fction and writers like Willeford (and Goodis, and Cain and etc) — this is truly existential fiction, a world without justice or God, a world where the bad guy gets ahead and uses people for his pleasure and entertainment.