Friday, July 24, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Woman Chaser,” by Charles Willeford

(Editor’s note: This is the 58th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s choice comes from Pennsylvania author, actress, and playwright Kathryn Miller Haines. She writes the Rosie Winter historical mystery series, the most recent installment of which is Winter in June [2009]. You can watch a video trailer for that book here.)

I came upon Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser in the usual way. A friend sent me the Pocket paperback with a note that said he had read the book and thought of me. And how couldn’t he, with such passages as this:
It was best to get Laura off the subject of the movie. On the dance floor, with her well-cushioned breasts pressing hard against my chest, I wondered why a woman who was so obviously a woman wanted to be so intelligent. Women are made for bed, and men are made for war. Life would be simple if both sexes could only remember these basic facts of life.
I tell you: it’s like looking in a mirror.

Willeford (1919-1988), for the uninitiated, was the author of the hard-boiled Hoke Moseley novels, which began with the amazing Miami Blues (1984). The Woman Chaser (1960) was written in the same vein as those later police procedurals--not really a traditional crime novel, the book reverberates with a wicked sense of humor that insists you go back and re-read passages just to confirm that the prose really was that outrageous. The Woman Chaser is the tale of one man’s downfall in post-World War II Los Angeles. As characters go, Willeford’s used-car salesman, Richard Hudson, doesn’t leave much to admire, especially when it comes to his interactions with women. He’s harboring a nasty Oedipus complex for his ballerina mother (with whom he shares an intensely sexual pas de deux in her basement studio--yes, what’s more hard-boiled than a man who knows ballet?). He beds his teenage stepsister in an attempt to turn her off men until she’s old enough to handle them (in his defense, he also gets her an IUD). And when he finds out that another one-night stand has a bun in the oven, his response is to punch her in the stomach.

Clearly, he’s just misunderstood.

Women aren’t Richard’s only problem. Having mastered the used-car biz, he thinks he’s destined for something better in life, better at least than the “feebs” he sees around him who accept lousy jobs and monotonous lives without complaint. He’s stuck in post-war America where the cookie-cutter construction ruining Los Angeles has become emblematic of the cookie-cutter lives returning veterans are happy to sink into. We never learn how Richard spent the war years, but it’s obvious he has nothing but disdain for what veterans are willing to accept now, and he doesn’t harbor much respect for what they went through to get here. He sees only one way out of the malaise: Art.

And that’s where things really get interesting. Determined to write the great American movie to rip the lid off the big lie that is post-war America and make everyone realize that they’re settling for crap when they should be demanding more, he teams up with his one-time producer stepfather. Together, the two hammer out a screenplay, the brilliance of which lies in its simplicity. Remarkably, they get studio funding. Or at least some studio funding provided by The Man, a bigwig who expects you to laugh when he laughs and to bend over when he tells you to. The rest of the cash comes from money Richard steals from his used-car lot boss and from hocking a valuable painting of his stepfather’s.

That’s OK though. The movie’s going to be a big hit, see? And
no one will be the wiser.

Remarkably, all of the pieces fall into place. Richard’s stepfather is a whiz with numbers and makes sure they stay within the tight constraints of their budget. They recruit the perfect star--rugged and unknown--and a decent co-star who, while not an actress, is able to perform as needed when Richard beds her. Hudson proves himself not only a capable writer, but an intuitive director (see: bedding the actress). The three-week shoot goes off without a hitch, until they end up in the film-editing suite. That’s when Richard realizes that he needs to cut, cut, cut to make the film stronger and tighter. What he ends up with barely lasts over an hour. It wouldn’t be a problem except that Hollywood, like the rest of post-war America, has rigid expectations. All films must be an hour and a half long. That’s what a movie is. No exceptions.

Richard wasn’t prepared for this. Art, after all, shouldn’t have rules. When did it become a commodity like everything else?

Richard’s given the chance to do one of two things: either pump the film with filler so that it fills out those six required canisters, or slash it further (to allow for commercials) and let it be the first piece the studio airs as part of a new TV series. But he refuses to compromise--after all, isn’t that the problem with America? And that’s when things get bad. Very, very bad.

Throughout it all, Willeford punches up his prose with Richard’s wry observations about life in America and his careful attempts to make sure that he’s a better class of human than the feeble-minded idiots around him, despite what his actions might indicate. The Woman Chaser itself is structured like a screenplay, a knowing wink that the best story contained within it isn’t the film Richard Hudson is creating, but the mess he is making of his own life.

READ MORE:Doing Right by a Poet of the Pulp Novel,” by Jesse Sublett (The New York Times).


Ed Gorman said...

I remember Willeford talking about reading many of John D. MacDonald's novels and then meeting him at a writing class (?). He took at least one thing from JDM, a fascination with how things work. There's a section in Woman Chaser in which the narrator explains how you screw people--Feebs--with used car contracts. This is also the section where he writes radio spots for Honest Hal and let's us read one of them. He even speaks briefly about the media buy in placing them. All this reality buttresses the reality of Richard' sociopathic reach for fame and glory.

Dave Zeltserman said...

This is a familiar theme in Willeford's best novels: the artist refusing to compromise and the hell that that sends him into. The Woman Chaser's great (the movie adaptation is good and very faithful to the book). Cockfighter follows this theme, as does in a way Grimhaven.

Cormac Brown said...

Though I haven't read this one, there was a pretty good movie version starring Patrick Warburton of all people. Unfortunately you can't buy it on DVD and the VHS copies of it are rare.