Written by Lawrence Block
Can a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person?
Photo: David Poller
In the summer of 1985, Lynne and I moved from New York to Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. After we’d been there a few months, I got a phone call from Dennis McMillan, the small press publisher. He was in a car, he said, with Charles and Betsy Willeford, and he wasn’t far from Fort Myers, and he thought they might stop by.
That sounded good to us. We were starved for company down there, and I welcomed the opportunity to spend a little time with a writer whose work I very much admired. Dennis showed up with Charles and Betsy in tow, and the five of us sat around talking and then went out for a meal. I don’t remember where we went or what we ate, but I do recall two things about our conversation.
The first was that Charles spoke at some length about a book he’d written and self-published eight years previously. It was called A Guide for the Underhemorrhoided, and it clearly concerned a subject about which Charles felt strongly; indeed, he’d written and published it as a service to his fellow man, recounting his own experience in an effort to disabuse the reader of the notion that surgery of this sort could possibly be a Good Idea.
“I’ll send you a copy,” he said.
He never did. It’s not impossible that I showed a lack of enthusiasm at the prospect, and this led him to drop the notion. It’s also possible that it slipped his mind. So I never did have a look at the book—until a few minutes ago, when I found the first few thousand words of the book on Dennis’ website. Here’s how it begins:
In hospital language a patient does not urinate, micturate, pee, piss, or take a leak. He voids. Or, as in my case, he is unable to void.
Hospital jargon is mid-Victorian. My hemorrhoids were not chopped out, hacked away, or operated upon. Instead, my asshole was dilated and debrided. There is no sex talk in a hospital either. Sex organs, male and female, when they are mentioned at all, are discussed formally, as elimination tools; nor is there, apparently, any distinction made between toilets for men and women....
Several years ago, before I ever thought of entering a hospital, a friend told me that a nurse’s aide would give a man a slow handjob for five bucks. Unsurprised at the time, I filed the information away, thinking I might be able to use it in a novel some day. I have been sorry since that I failed to press my friend for details. On the disinterested outside, I had no reason to disbelieve him. But on the inside, watching these harried, grimly smiling nurses’ aides—probably the lowest IQ occupational group of employees in the nation—rushing about inefficiently, but earning every cent of their $2.40 an hour, I wondered vaguely how my friend had gone about getting his slow handjob. He would have had to draw them a picture. However, discounting the denseness of the nurses’ aides understanding, the lack of privacy, the hospital stench, and the permeating reek of indignant death—these factors in combination—drove all thoughts of and about sex from my mind during the two weeks of my stay.
I certainly wish I’d accepted Charles’ offer with more enthusiasm, and in retrospect it’s hard to imagine why I didn’t. What did I think I’d get from Willeford? Something dry and clinical? Something impersonal?
At some point during our lunch, Charles fixed an eye on me and began talking about people who ate cat. There was, he said, an informal worldwide society of men who had eaten cat, and they looked for and acknowledged one another. One man might look at another and say something along the lines of, “You eat cat, don’t you?” And the other might smile and nod in acknowledgment, or raise an eyebrow.
“Now you,” Charles said, “you look to me like a man who has eaten cat.”
Now at the time I was a vegetarian, so I hadn’t eaten so much as a tuna fish sandwich for seven or eight years, never mind a pussycat. But all I did was say that I hadn’t in fact ever eaten cat.
Charles seemed to find the admission disappointing. “I’m surprised,” he said. “I thought you might well be a man who has eaten cat.”
I wonder what he meant. Was there a sexual undertone to all of this? Was “eating cat” a faintly veiled euphemism for cunnilingus? That occurred to me at the time, naturally enough, but I didn’t think so then, nor do I think so now. I just did a Google search and learned more about the subject of human consumption of cat meat than I ever wanted to know, and my guess, after all these years, is that Charles found the topic interesting enough to toss into the conversation, just to see what came back.
And did Charles ever eat cat? I suppose I should have asked him when I had the chance. But I didn’t, and so I don’t know, and don’t need to know.
But I’ll say this much. I wouldn’t put it past him.
I saw Charles two or three times after that—at the Miami Book Fair, and again in Key West, where we both took part in a literary symposium in January, 1988. The topic was "Whodunit? The Art & Tradition of Mystery Literature," and there were enough interesting writers participating to offset the academic tone set by the sponsors. I ran into Charles and Betsy several times in the course of the weekend, and sometimes I’d catch him eyeing me speculatively, as if wondering whether I’d ever eaten cat.
The Key West event was just about the last thing I did in Florida before taking leave of the state. Within a month, Lynne and I had closed our house and took off for two years without a fixed address. Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day of 1990, we returned to New York.
Meanwhile, Charles Willeford had died—in Miami, on March 27, 1988. We were out of reach in that pre-email, pre-cell-phone era, and so it was months before I learned he was gone. I’d known Charles was not in the best of health; he didn’t talk about it, but it was evident. So in that sense the news was not unexpected. But it was shocking all the same; when one meets with so clear and distinctive a voice, one expects it to be around forever.
Not long after Charles’ death I began to hear the rumors. Charles had left a fifth Hoke Moseley novel, an impossibly dark novel, in which either Hoke killed his two daughters, or died himself, or both. And the book would eventually be published, or was deemed too dark to be published, or...well, various rumors advanced various possibilities.
This is not uncommon, both before and after the death of a popular writer, especially one with a beloved series character. Several years before John D. MacDonald died, fans were speculating about a final Travis McGee novel; each of the books had a color in the title (The Deep Blue Goodbye, The Green Ripper, The Scarlet Ruse), and this last book would have black in the title, and McGee would die at the end of it. The rumors increased when John D. passed. Yes, he had indeed written such a book! Yes, it had black in the title! Yes, McGee died on the last page! Yes, it would be published!
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.
(Once in an indigo moon, the rumor proves true. Decades before her death, Agatha Christie wrote not one but two novels for posthumous publication, signing off on both Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.)
The Willeford rumor persisted, and it turned out to be partially true. The book was called Grimhaven, and one can find the following notation about it in the Willeford archive at the Broward County Library: NOTE: as per Betsy Willeford: “Ms. of the ‘black Hoke Moseley,’ never published, sold to a small but ruthless group of collectors in the form of Xerox copies. May not be copied in the library by patrons who’ll wholesale it on the Internet.”
Five or six years after its author’s death, someone sent me a photocopy of the manuscript of Grimhaven. I read it right away, and saw at once that it was not intended as a fifth Hoke Moseley book but as a sequel to Miami Blues, a sequel Willeford did not at all want to write.
Miami Blues, which introduced Hoke Moseley, got a very strong and favorable response from the critics, drew a lot of attention to its author, and sold well. The publisher, not too surprisingly, wanted Willeford to write a sequel, and indeed to make Hoke a series character.
Should it surprise us to learn that Charles Willeford, whose characters constantly exhibit quirky, contrary, self-defeating behavior, should balk at the notion? He really didn’t want to write another Hoke Moseley book, and his publisher really wanted him to write that and nothing else.
So Charles knocked out a book designed to nip the series in the bud. Because in its pages Hoke, this wonderfully interesting and sympathetic hero, murders his daughters, gets arrested for the crime, and looks forward to being confined to a prison cell for the rest of his life, thus fulfilling the book’s epigraph quote, from Blaise Pascal: “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room by himself.” Hoke is destined to do just that, and the likelihood of our reading further about him would seem remote at best.
Do you think I should have prefaced this with a spoiler alert? Well, too bad. The spoiler’s intentional, because I’d prefer to discourage you from seeking out and reading the manuscript. Betsy Willeford would rather you didn’t, and I’m with her on this one. And, let me assure you, it’s not a very good book. But then it wasn’t really trying to be.
I wasn’t privy to the conversations and correspondence that followed the submission of Grimhaven, but I can imagine, and so can you. The publisher had his way, and Grimhaven went back on shelf, and soon enough Charles had produced an eminently successful sequel to Miami Blues, with the magnificent title of New Hope for the Dead. (That’s from an old joke, incidentally, in which it’s cited as the ultimate Reader’s Digest essay.) Then came Sideswipe, with The Way We Die Now following in the year of Willeford’s death.
Charles Willeford took writing very seriously, and applied himself to it wholeheartedly for some 40 years. He started out as a poet; his first book, Proletarian Laughter, was a collection of poems. He began publishing paperback fiction while serving his second hitch in the military, and kept at it, and worked hard at it.
With the Hoke Moseley novels, he got a taste of the commercial success that had for so long eluded him. When I learned of his death, I was struck by the irony of it; he was just beginning to get somewhere, and the Fates took him out of the game.
Later, when I learned about and read Grimhaven, and realized how hard Charles had worked to keep success at bay, I saw the irony to be vaster than I’d guessed. You could even call it Willefordian.
Not long ago I finally got around to reading I Was Looking for a Street, Willeford’s memoir of his early years. It made it very clear to me how the man was able to consistently create wildly idiosyncratic characters. He came by it honestly; their quirks were his.
The hero of Cockfighter, resolutely mute throughout the book’s pages because of an oath he’d made to himself. The cheerful old man in Sideswipe, taking his daily constitutional walk through his suburban neighborhood, meeting and greeting his neighbors, even as he sets about poisoning all their dogs. And Hoke Moseley, for heaven’s sake, quirky enough even before he decided to strangle his beloved daughters. Nobody else ever came up with characters like that, and I don’t know that anybody ever could.
Their origins become clear—well, clearer, anyway—when you read I Was Looking for a Street. It never seems to have occurred to Willeford to be embarrassed about anything, or about sharing anything with the reader, all in the most matter-of-fact manner. One gets a hint of this in the passage I quoted from the hemorrhoid book, and it’s evident throughout the memoir.
(This lack of embarrassment, I should note, extended to his early career as a writer. His books for years were published by third-rate soft-porn houses like Beacon. Now I wrote for Beacon, and so did any number of writers I’ve known, but none of us used our own names on those books. I’m sure Charles knew that Beacon was not on the same level with, say, Alfred Knopf, but they were his books and he put his name on them.)
He develops a friendship with another teenage hobo, whose main goal in life is to get a real cowboy hat, a Stetson; once he has one, he’ll feel he’s ready to quit the road and go home. Charles vows privately that he’ll get such a hat for his friend, and indeed the day comes when he sees the perfect hat on a peg in a saloon. He grabs it up and wears it out of there, and the hat feels just about perfect on his own head, and he wants that hat as he’s never wanted anything in his life.
But he promised it to his friend—even though the friend knows nothing of the promise. So Charles feels himself honor-bound to give him the hat, because that’s the right thing to do, and it would be wrong to keep it.
The moral imperative of bestowing the hat upon his friend, combined with the clear immorality of stealing it from its rightful owner—I’ll tell you, if I came across that in a novel, I’d know right away who wrote it.
It was at the end of the memoir that I found what seems to me to be the key to Charles Willeford and his work. He supplies a sort of coda to the work, a poem in which he takes to task his absent father and blames him for making him grow up a sociopath.
To be sure, literary ability is no guarantee against a sociopathic personality, as Norman Mailer found out to his chagrin after he’d championed Jack Henry Abbott. But does a sociopath ever recognize himself as such?
And can a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person? Can one be a sociopath, virtually unaware of socially prescribed morality, and yet be consumed with the desire to do the right thing?
That strikes me as a spot-on description of just about every character Willeford ever wrote. How could he come up with characters like that? My God, how could he help it?
I haven’t re-read any of Willeford’s work since I came upon that revelation in I Was Looking for a Street. I intend to. I think it will illuminate the work, and thus shed a little more light on the man himself. I’m grateful that I knew him, however briefly and superficially. I wish I could have known him better, and longer.
A Selected Charles Willeford Reading List
High Priest of California, 1953
Wild Wives, 1956
Honey Gal, aka The Black Mass of Brother Springer, 1958
Lust Is a Woman, aka Made in Miami, 1958
The Woman Chaser, 1960
The Whip Hand, 1961
Understudy for Love, aka Understudy for Death, 1961
No Experience Necessary, 1962
Cockfighter, 1962; revised 1972
The Burnt Orange Heresy, 1971
The Hombre from Sonora, 1971 (as Will Charles)
The Shark-Infested Custard, 1993
The Machine in Ward Eleven, 1963
Everybody’s Metamorphosis, 1988
Something About a Soldier, 1986
I Was Looking for a Street, 1988
Cockfighter Journal: The Story of a Shooting, 1989 (Willeford’s account of the filming of his novel)
Writing and Other Blood Sports, 2000
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #116.