Honey Gal by Charles Willeford (Beacon Books #160, 1955)
In the mid-1950s, just about every title from Beacon was listed as “First Award Winner” whatever that was. Here, again, we have a cover that has little to do with the text — from this cover, and the title, we’re lead to believe this may be a steamy farm or backwoods tale, when the novel is far, far from that. It is another quirky offering from Willeford about identity, fraud, and lost dreams.
The narrator is a middle-aged man in Columbus, Ohio, who works as an accountant at a milk company and is married to a dull wife. In quiet secret, he wrote a novel called No Bed Too High and sold it to the second publisher he mailed it to. He got a $250 advance and publication in hardcover, but the novel did not do too well or make him famous.
Still, it’s a way out of this droll life, and the novel encourages him to dream of a new life, and against his wife’s desire, they move to Florida where he tries to write a second novel but nothing is there.
He wants out of this life of failure too. he feels like a hel for letting his wife down. He sees an small item in the morning paper about a monestary in Orangeville that will close down due to money matters. he thinks there might be a magazine article in this, so he takes the train, only buying a one way ticket, already knowing in his heart he won’t return to his wife and their life.
He discovers that the monestary is run by a con man who has re-defined his life, much like Jay Gatsby. The narrator sees that he can do, so he joins the outfit and becomes a monk, and later a Reverend, going ouit top do God’s work.
He, a white man of the cloth, is sent to Harlem. Looking at the cover art again, is the dark-skinned woman not tanned or Mexican but supposed to be black?
Like Willeford’s other first-person sociopaths that feel no remorse in their deceptions and lies, , this one plays at being righteous, leads prayers when he does not believe in God, and marries teenagers whom he has made feel guilty for their sinful sex out of wedlock. He has eschewed his two previous failures of a life, and now has this…but his past, and the life he abandoned, have a way of finding him.
In some ways, this novel is akin to the absurdity of Albert Camus, and the narrator likes to reflect on Kafka and Russian tragedies in comparison to his life. Here, again, is a book that could have been categorized as awork of literary merit, at the time, rather than a cheap paperback with a cover and title that does not fit the fine words on the pages.
Honey Gal isn’t as good as Pick-Up or The Woman Chaser, no, but we highly recommend it and if you have never read Willeford, now is a good time.