The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford (Newstand Library, 1961)
What is it with vintage sleaze books and having protagonists as used car salesmen in Los Angeles? It worked well in Robert Carney’s excellent Anything Goes, as it does here in this early Willeford novel. And like Anything Goes — both published by Newsstand Library — this is an example of superb literary fiction marketed as softcore smut in the 1960s. Someone at Newsstand had a good eye for writing.
Stylistically, The Woman Chaser is an experimental novel for its time, taking its cue from John Dos Passos’ American Trilogy, with transitions between “chapters” using screenplay format: CUT TOs, WIPEs, DISSOLVES, etc. Near the end, one section takes the form of a short play (Moby-Dick?). At the top, we are presented a third person text, then go to first person as the narrator, Richard Hudson, sees himself in the third person as a different person as he changes his life: he’s a used car salesman for the Honest Hal franchise in San Francisco; he’s come down to Los Angeles to open an Honest Hal lot. Hudson grew up in L.A., with a diva mother and a father who wrote a “True Grits” jungle that made a lot of money. Her current husband, the narrator’s stepfather, was once a visionary filmmaker in Hollywood, but art in the end did not sell movies and he lots a lot for the studio, so he had to retire from the biz. But Hollywood seems to always lure those who have returned back into the game of moving photo narratives…
Hudson, a quiet critic of movies all his life, looks at all the shit films and TV out there and like many did then and do today) becomes convinced he can create a better movie that he will write and direct, regardless of the fact that he has never written a thing, directed, or knows how the business works. But does he need to know? He has a stepfather with contacts, and he has a way of drumming up part of the financing by shifting some of the car lot’s operating capitol, depleting the $18,000 in his bank account, and getting his stepfather to sell a work of art worth $35,000.
The process of making a low budget film that Willeford depicts in 1960 hasn’t changed much today, nor the notion that one only has to watch a lot of movies to know how to make one. Leo, the stepfather, is appalled when Hudson gives him a “treatment” for the film, The Man Who Got Away, which is one sentence — really more a logline. Hudson finally does sit down for a few days and fleshes out scenes and a story for what he has in mind, a dark tale of moral decline in the U.S. about a truck driver, his haggard wife, and the desire to “get away” from the failure of the American dream.
Leo manages to talk his old boss at Mammoth Studios to distribute and co-produce the film, in the form of a bungalow office, a sound stage, and help from the secretary pool. The film is a go!
So is Hudson a woman chaser? Not really, so the title, no surprise, and cover copy deceives. Hudson is chasing the Hollywood dream, chasng a desire to create on screen…in the process, there are two women he sleeps with. One is his 16-year-old stepsister, a curious girl who goes to his bed to be deflowered, his shocked by the violent act, but later comes back for more, and more. Soon Hudson calls it off because he’s afraid Leo will find out and what shit will hit the fan? Is it really incest? At best, Hudson could be prosecuted for statutory rape.
Second is Hudson’s secretary from Mammoth, a bright-eyed young lady named Laura with a college degree and a wish to be a screenwriter, who thinks just because Hudson has a film in process, he must be a successful screenwriter and she can learn the tricks of the craft from him. Hudson seduces her and she plays hard to get — she informs him that she’s a virgin but once he gets her in bed, he realizes she was lying, she was only making him work hard for what he thought was the prize of her maidenhead (like he did with his stepsister)…he winds up firing her and sending her back to the studio secretary pool.
A lot of odd low budget tricks go under way –to get away from paying actor’s union fees, he hires a longtime background actor who has never had a speaking role and hires a woman from the Farmer’s Market in L.A. to play the wife, a regular person not in the Hollywood system, who comes cheap.
Meanwhile, Laura keeps trying to reach him — seems their one night left her pregnant.
Hudson is an amoral mysogynist much like the narrators of his previous books, Wild Wives and High Priest of California. But like the narrator of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we are fascinated by the inner workings of the sociopath mind, and we keep turning the pages, no matter how many horrible, evil things he does to people.
The Woman Chaser is on par with classic novels like The Day of the Locust or Of Mice and Men. Truly, that is how good this work of literature is — although still seen as a crime book, such is also the case of Crime and Punishment.
To get an original first edition of this novel will run you between $50-300. Thunder’s Mouth Press reprinted it in 2001, but that publisher is long gone. Black Mask reprinted it in 2008, which is the copy we read and recommend.