Friday, October 21, 2011

Forgotten Books: High Priest of California by Charles Willeford

This was my first Charles Willeford book. And by no coincidence, it was also Charles Willeford’s first book. I’ve always identified more with authors than with their characters, so whenever possible I like to start at the beginning.

I had no idea what to expect. But I knew it was set in San Francisco, I knew I’d be meeting Willeford biographer Don Herron while visiting that burg, and knew I’d be spending a fair amount of time resting my feet and legs in the hotel room. And since I’d reread most of Hammett’s SF stuff in the weeks leading up to the trip, High Priest of California seemed the natural choice to take along.

Natural is a good word for it. The book is narrated in breezy, unaffected fashion by a sleazy car salesman named Russell Haxby. The title comes from a line of dialogue delivered by a supporting character.

     “I know all about guys like you, Russell. You’re the High-Priest of California. That isn’t original with me. It was a caption in Life about the used car salesmen of California. Did you see it?” 
     I shook my head. “I’m afraid not, but it makes a good caption.” 
     “And it fits.”

Russell’s one and only goal is a bed a reasonably good-looking babe who’s playing hard to get. The reason for the act, we soon discover, is that she’s hiding a mentally unbalance husband in her apartment. She wants to cheat on him, but struggling with guilt.

At that point, I thought I had the story figured. It was a James M. Cain thing, where the sleazy guy and sleazy gal conspire to murder the hubby and end up getting their just deserts. But nope, that wasn’t it at all.

I’m not going to tell you what happens, but I will say that Willeford fooled me. As a story, the novel wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I think was the point. It wasn’t meant to be satisfying, it was meant as a slice of sleazy life in California, circa 1953.

If that’s what Mr. W was really aiming for, he hit the bullseye.

If you’d like to see for yourself, the novel is available for free download, in a variety of electronic formats, at the Munsey’s site, Check it out. You’ll also find six other early Willeford works (Cockfighter, Honey Gal, Wild Wives, The Woman-Chaser, Pick-Up and Whip Hand) and a lot of other cool stuff. I am indebted to Ye Olde Cap’n Bob Napier for the tip.

More Forgotten Books, as usual, at pattinase.


Anonymous said...

I had to look it up, but The Burnt Orange Heresy (Crown Publishers, 1971 - Willeford's first hardcover original) was the first Willeford I read,, and I didn't quite know what to make of it at the time. Upon reflection and re-reading, I became quite a fan of the book, but never did go back and read another of his.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I adore him and have not read this one. Thanks!

George said...

Willeford gained attention and fame late in his career. But some of his early work, like the HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA, still display his unique style.

Charles Gramlich said...

Every time I see his name I regret not having read him. SIgh.

J F Norris said...

I've read Miami Blues, Sideswipe and Pick-Up. PICK-UP is a helluva book. The final sentence changes your entire reading experience of the book. That book, one of his earliest, is a masterpiece in my opinion.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I loved HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA. So wickedly funny, such scumbag characters, and so devoid of morality. I'd really like to re-read this again sometime soon.

Dan_Luft said...

I didn't really like this book. I always thought his early stuff was pretty uneven but then, at around this time, he wrote Pick Up which is just damn near perfect. I never understood how this book was so well put together and surrounded by Priest and Wild WIves.

Cap'n Bob said...

You're welcome. For what? If it's Munsey, tell me how to get those downloads.