CUSTARD: A NOVEL OF CRIME,
VICE AND SEX.
' 272 pages. $20.95.
This posthumous work by the superb crime novelist Charles Willeford answers with its title one riddle (which is the book's epigraph: "What is very sweet, bright yellow, and extremely dangerous?") and poses a couple of others with its publishing history.
Part I, the first of four separate but linked point-of-view stories, was privately published, in an edition of 400 copies, as "Strange" in the collection "Everybody's Metamorphosis" in 1988 -- the year the author died at age 69. Part II was also privately published the year before.
Why did it take so long for the complete book, which we are told was finished in the 1970s and considered by the author to be "his masterwork," to see print? And does it really deserve that estimation?
Willeford finally hit his stride after 40 years of writing in the 1980s with the series of four novels about the weary, slightly clownish Miami detective Hoke Moseley, at least one of which ("Sideswipe," the third) really is a masterpiece -- and not just as a crime novel. Like that other late-in-life creation Don Quixote, Hoke is the distillation of a hardscrabble writer's long, bitter experience of the world. And if Willeford somewhat overrated "The Shark-Infested Custard," it's probably because in it he was beginning to grasp the coherent thematic statement toward which he'd been working in all his writing: that life was hard, mean, random and -- if you could stand it -- funny in a grimly ironic way.
"Custard" falls just short of integrating that statement and is interesting for that reason: Here, spread out among four characters on the floor of the author's workroom, are the elements of Hoke Moseley; some assembly is required, but it's worth the effort because the book is full of rich, ripe Willeford at his best.
The book opens with four young blades sitting around the pool of a singles-only apartment complex in Miami drinking a pitcher of vodka martinis and wondering idly how they will be engaged by night's end. Part I is narrated in the first person by Larry Dolman, a bright, college-educated former policeman with a good job and a better future in a nationwide rent-a-cop firm.
Both Dolman and his companions are well paid and relatively underworked, more or less unattached and fully prepared to fire at sexual targets of opportunity. The others are Eddie Miller, an Air Force veteran now flying as co-pilot on an airline 747; Don Luchessi, southeast U.S. sales representative for a British tableware firm; and Hank Norton, detail man for a pharmaceutical firm who makes more money than all of them by working about 15 hours a week and "gets more [women] in a single month than the rest of us get in a year."
The mating game in fact has gotten so easy for the lot of them that they decide to spice it up by betting Hank that not even he can pick up a woman in what they designate the most difficult of sexual stalking grounds, a drive-in movie theater.
But the game turns deadly when Hank and the others discover that his teen-age trophy is in the fatal throes of a drug overdose.
Within seconds she's dead -- of methaqualone, they soon discover -- and the four musketeers have the problem of finding the man the girl said she was waiting for as one way of identifying her and getting clear of the mess they've inherited.
Hank Norton's narrative, in Part II, is pure Willeford all the way: Hank finds himself obsessed with a strange, and strangely RTC alluring, woman who may or may not be married but is surely setting him up to be killed for reasons he can't even guess. When he finally confronts the murderous "husband," a "Mr. Wright," who has already made one serious attempt on his life, he encounters a deadly but eerily pathetic part-time killer with 27 notches on his Magnum who has been hired to execute Hank for something he didn't do.
There are flaws and loose ends in the book, but "The Shark-Infested Custard," clearly Willeford's metaphor for Miami, remains interesting for the value of its parts. Whether or not they all add up, they are greater than the jagged whole; and they show a good writer on the verge of a major breakthrough he had far too little time left to exploit.