Friday, January 07, 2011

The Book You Have to Read: “New Hope for the Dead,” by Charles Willeford

(Editor’s note: This is the 112th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Irish writer Kevin McCarthy, author of the historical crime novel Peeler--one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2010. McCarthy is currently at work on a Peelers sequel, which he says is “tentatively titled Irregulars and set during the [Irish] Civil War.”)

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“We may divide characters into flat and round … In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence ...” -- E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

The crime-fictional detective is burdened with clichés--a conflicted man of predictable, stubborn brilliance; necessarily grim, comfortingly violent, hard drinking, roughly noble. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid ... The best of them are, in Forster’s words, effectively “flat,” bearing this commonality of attributes to serve the primacy of plot. To the reader he is a seeker of truth, a rogue, a lone wolf. But for the writer, he is a rather more domesticated animal, easily yoked to the fixed poles of plot and genre.

Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley, in New Hope for the Dead (1985)--the second installment in a four-novel series that started with Miami Blues and ended with The Way We Die Now and Willeford’s death in 1988--is an altogether stranger, rounder beast.

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“A plot is ... a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” -- E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

In New Hope for the Dead, Miami homicide detective Sergeant Hoke Moseley solves a murder, of sorts, with Forster’s notion of causality entering by means of an unwelcome, impromptu prostate massage. What Hoke seeks, though, in a profoundly mundane and yet hilarious way, is not the truth, as would his flatter, plot-indentured stable mates in the genre, but a place to call home. However, it is not only a home, in the metaphysical sense, he seeks; he roams this novel in search of an actual house, a legal residence--for himself, his pregnant (police) partner, and his two teenage daughters--that is within Miami city limits as defined by the new chief of police. New Hope for the Dead is nothing if not a fictional testament to the conflict between the utilitarian and the pursuit of the profound. It is a novel that boldly allows the banal to triumph over crime fiction’s bonds of causality. To wit:
But it still bothered Hoke that an experienced user, with a large sum of money and more drugs available, would take a deliberate overdose, or even OD accidentally. It just didn’t fit the pattern.

Hoke returned to U.S. 1, and then stopped at an Eckerd’s drugstore to buy a package of Kools. After he paid for the cigarettes, he showed the clerk his shield and asked if he could use the telephone. Since the pay phone rates had jumped from a dime to a quarter a few years back, Hoke, as a matter of principle, had never paid to use a phone again. He called Ms. Westphal at the house-sitting service ...

“I’m now willing,” he said, “to take a short-time sitter’s job, even if it’s only a couple of weeks ...”
From speculating on the strange circumstances behind a drug user’s death to buying cigarettes and scamming phone calls to ring a house-sitting service. The banal wins hands down, particularly as the scene continues with Hoke and the house-sitting agent haggling over terms and locations, and Hoke wondering whether or not he will need to bring his hotplate with him when he moves. Yet the quality of the writing, the humor and humanity behind the dialogue, brings us willingly along.

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The primitive audience was an audience of shockheads, gaping round the camp-fire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next?--E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Willeford teases us--neo-primitives, fatigued with contending against tailbacks on the I-95 or negative equity--with the template of a conventional crime novel: Hoke and his partner, Ellita Sanchez, respond to the scene of a heroin overdose. A crime may or may not have been committed. What will happen next?

Soon after this, Hoke, Ellita, and the ever-cheerful redneck detective Bill Henderson are assigned to investigate cold-case murders. This is Willeford again inviting the reader into the comforting confines of narrative events defined by their causality--What will happen next? (and why?)--before slowly, through his depiction of Hoke’s days as a series of quotidian digressions and ambling, conversational encounters, beginning to push us out.

Large portions of this novel find Hoke using “comp days” to seek out rent-free accommodations, encountering along the way a Bajan sculptor’s garage, filthy shoe store toilets, original Chagall sketches, a sexy widow’s suppository-strewn bungalow, and a house-sitting gig that requires masturbating the owner’s dog.

Yet we follow Willeford on his crooked, anti-plotted path because of the quality of the writing. Hoke and his interlocutors speak the way real people speak, often about nothing, and occasionally, when speaking about nothing, about everything. Willeford writes so well that we continue to want to know what happens next, even if what happens next has very little to do with the conventional crime-fictional detective’s search for truth and justice.

Take this scene, for instance, a meeting in Hoke’s boss’ office:
[Major] Brownley dropped the burnt match into an ashtray made from a motorcycle piston, looked at Hoke, shook his head, and smiled. “Hoke, you must be the last man in Miami wearing a leisure suit. Where’d you find it, anyway?”

“There was a close-out in the fashion district. I got this blue poplin and a yellow one just like it for only fifty bucks on a two-for-one sale. I like the extra pockets, and with a leisure suit you don’t have to wear a tie.”

“You don’t wear a leisure suit to court, do you?”

“No, I’ve got an old blue serge suit I wear to court. Is that what this meeting’s about, Willie? My taste in plain clothes?”

“In a way. What I’m doing is what they suggested in the Dale Carnegie course I took last year. I’m putting you all at ease by developing a relaxed atmosphere. You all relaxed now?”

Hoke shook his head, Henderson smiled and Ellita said, “Yes, sir.”
Through this office banter, Willeford tells us all we need to know about Hoke Moseley, from his obstinately practical fashion sense to his straitened financial circumstances. He tells us a great deal about Major Willie Brownley, Henderson, and Ellita Sanchez as well, with great economy and humor. This is a rare gift and New Hope for the Dead is full of such gems. Indeed it is full to the point that the plot is more often than not subsumed by the rich characterization and gritty, funny, raunchy, and occasionally quite moving dialogue. Causality is riding in the back seat in New Hope for the Dead and we don’t mind a bit. What happens next? Hoke happens.

If New Hope is about anything, it’s about Hoke Moseley.

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“The characters arrive, when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book.”--E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Moseley is one of crime fiction’s great creations, a literary Everyman, a character so far up the curve towards “round” that he is identifiably human in a way so many fictional detectives are not. Willeford, in a bold and experimental move that one feels would simply never be published today, allows his character Hoke his full range of “mutiny” against the demands of the “main scheme” required by conventional detective fiction. It is Hoke’s personality--so rounded, so strangely principled and callous and loving and corrupt all at once--that carries the reader happily through a “crime novel” in which cold-case crimes are solved mainly by accident and corruption is far from the city hall variety and infinitely more mundane, more human.

Whereas more standard crime-fiction protagonists are driven by a righteous rage at, say, the abuse of women and children or bureaucratic obfuscation, Willeford’s Hoke takes a principled stand against the raised price of public pay phones and for free tongue sandwiches (“once a month was just about right. He didn’t want to abuse the privilege”).

There is humor in these pages, but none of it forced. We learn why house sitting just won’t suit. We hear Hoke give advice to Bill Henderson on how to convince a 12-year-old boy to shower after gym class. We watch as Hoke’s partner is thrown out of her house for becoming pregnant and Hoke takes her in, unable to understand her parents’ objections because to Hoke, getting pregnant is “what women do. They get pregnant.”

Hoke is a sexist (“Her quiescent moodiness had been going on for more than a week now. At first, Hoke had attributed it to her period--if that’s what it was--but a week was a long time. How long did a period last?”) but he does not judge. He is critical of his partner’s Shalimar perfume but not her actions. She is a good cop and, moreover, can type faster than he or Bill Henderson.

Hoke’s daughters are foisted upon him by his ex-wife, who has decided to find happiness (sans filles) in the arms of Curly Jackson, a professional baseball player she encounters during Florida spring training. Meeting his daughters for the first time in many years, Hoke is stunned, standing in the lobby of the rundown retirement (and Mariel boatlift refugee) hotel in his off-duty wear of tan Bermuda shorts, shoes with no socks, and gray gym shirt. He listens as his daughter describes the man his ex has abandoned her daughters for:
“Who’s Curly Peterson?” Hoke said.

“That’s the man mom’s been living with--you know, the pinch hitter for the Dodgers. Sometimes he plays center field. He just renegotiated his contract, and he’ll get three hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year for the next five years.”

“... I don’t follow baseball much anymore. There’s too many teams anyway.”

Aileen looked at the floor and made a circle on the carpet with her right foot. “He’s a black man.”

“He isn’t real black, though,” Sue Ellen said. “He’s lighter than a basketball.”

Hoke’s mind was frozen. For a moment he had difficulty getting his thoughts together.

“What’s his batting average?” Hoke said, clearing his throat.

“Two-ninety, and he’s got a lot of RBI’s.”

“That’s pretty good for a pinch hitter ...”
But Hoke is not shocked by the fact that his ex-wife has abandoned her daughters to run off with a black baseball player. (Hoke is prone to Floridian, good-ol’-boy racism at times; he is possibly the late-20th century’s least PC protagonist, but he is also oddly accepting of what he perceives to be human weakness.) But he is shocked--and shocked to delight--by the fact that he will now no longer have to pay child support for his daughters. This is Hoke in a beautifully drawn scene of believable dialogue and very mixed human emotion; selfish interest and opportunism combined with the very real joy he feels at the chance he now has to be a father to his daughters.

And it is not long before Hoke begins to exercise what he feels to be his paternal responsibilities to his 14- and 16-year-old girls. Here he offers a lecture on responsibility and the value of honest labor:
“I’m out of cigarettes,” Sue Ellen said, “and the machine in the lobby takes six quarters for a pack. Can I have some change for cigarettes?”

“No.” Hoke took two Kools out of his pack and handed them to her. “Better make these two last. If you can’t support your habit on the allowance I gave you, you’ll just have to stop smoking till I can find you a job somewhere.”

Sue Ellen poked out her lower lip. “I don’t like the menthol kind.”

Hoke snatched the two Kools back from her and returned them to the pack.
Later, Moseley gives the girls a hilariously inappropriate lecture on the birds and the bees:
“A dose of clap’ll make an old man out of you before you’re thirty.”

Both girls laughed.

Hoke grinned. “That’s what my old first sergeant used to tell us every payday, when I was in the army. So it won’t make an old man out of you girls, but clap’s harder on a woman than it is on a man because it can make you sterile. Got any questions?”

The girls looked at each other. Aileen smiled; Sue Ellen studied the tip of her cigarette. “Can I let the hair grow under my arms? Like Ellita?”

“Not yet. Wait until you’re eighteen. Okay? And any questions you have, ask me, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out for you. If you can’t trust your father to give you the straight goods about sex, who else have you got? Okay, run along now. I’m going to stay up here for a while.”

The girls kissed him and took the elevator down. Hoke lit a cigarette and walked to the parapet. The sun was down, but the entire western sky was still a watercolor wash of red, purple, and orange. Low on the horizon, there were darker, slanting shafts of blue-black, indicating the rain that was passing through the Everglades.

All in all, Hoke thought, his little talk had gone fairly well, but he was glad it was over. He had left out a lot, but there were some things the girls weren’t ready for, even though they were brighter than he had thought they were. They had made it easy for him, too, by not asking a lot of dumb questions. But he still didn’t know what he was going to do about a place to live.
Hoke treats his daughters like adults when they should be treated like children and like children when they should be given the respect young women deserve, but he does his Southern best by them. He is not a “good father,” in the conventional sense--nor is he a “good detective” in the conventional crime-fictional sense--but he is a strangely good man, and Willeford is a wonderfully warm writer, accepting of human failure and ever cognizant of the humor inherent to this failure.

Note also the powerful description of the Florida sky at dusk in that last passage. This shift--from humor to reflective, descriptive silence and back again to humor--calls attention, in the character of Hoke as Everyman, to the futility of all of our best-laid plans against the blithe majesty of nature. This is great writing.

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“All I will do is state a possibility. If human nature does alter, it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people--a very few people, but a few novelists are among them--are trying to do this.”--E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

In a superficial, perhaps commercially knowing way, Willeford’s title, New Hope for the Dead, refers to the cold cases Hoke, Ellita, and the ever-cheerful Sergeant Bill Henderson are assigned to work. But it is the new hope provided by Hoke’s ad hoc family and (finally) dubiously acquired domicile--well within the Miami P.D.-regulated city limits--that motivates Hoke and makes this book so bizarrely enjoyable and, in its own way, quite profound.

Would it be published today, New Hope for the Dead? One would like to think so, such is the quality of the writing, but it is doubtful. Mass-market crime fiction is recruiting only “flat” men these days and Willeford has given us in Hoke Moseley--a leisure-suit-wearing, menthol-smoking, “blue-gray” dentures-sporting good ol’ boy of a Miami homicide detective--a protagonist so “round” he bounces, and in New Hope for the Dead a novel so offbeat and contrary to cliché that it just might be a small work of genius.

The three other Hoke Moseley novels, Miami Blues (1984), Sideswipe (1987), and The Way We Die Now (1988), ain’t half-bad either.

READ MORE:The Book You Have to Read: The Woman Chaser, by Charles Willeford,” by Kathryn Miller Haines (The Rap Sheet).

1 comment:

RJR said...

I spoke with Charles after the Mosely novels brought him success. His response was, "I wish I was young enough to enjoy it."

I love those books.