The Transgression of Brother Willeford
Transgressive fiction is one of those genre labels guaranteed to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a type of fiction characterised by graphic depiction of taboo-breaking behaviour including drug abuse, violence, sexual deviancy (basically non-vanilla sexual activity) and – in the case of American Psycho, anyway – an unhealthy fascination with the oeuvre of Huey Lewis and The News. Bad transgressive fiction typically mistakes its means for its end, and so we’re left with a series of one-note deviants abusing each other with little more than “we’re all corrupt and fucked” as a running theme. Even the most successful transgressive writers don’t so much transgress as actively play to their audience’s prejudices and kinks just like any other by-the-numbers commercial writer.
Indeed, most transgressive fiction is really nothing of the sort; it merely buffs a counterculture sheen onto a mainstream narrative. The transgression is never emotional, never deeper than the artifice of literary device or pseudo-shocking event, and it’s a reliance on the latter that has effectively hobbled transgressive fiction for today’s readers. After all, we live in an age when grimed-up remakes of former video nasties like I Spit on Your Grave, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left can be mainstream movie releases, when American Psycho and Evil Dead can be turned into musicals, and when the TV crime shows regularly show enough gore to make Herschell Gordon Lewis pale. How can transgressive fiction pack a punch in a cultural climate that extols the virtues of doorstop rape-revenge cartoons like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? In some cases, transgressive authors will retreat into literary tricks – fractured narratives, footnotes, tense and person shifts – but this is rarely more than flash without substance. To my mind, the only way for transgressive fiction to survive is to go back to basics and subvert expectations.
Expectation is key, you see. If you pick up a Hubert Selby Jr novel, chances are you aren’t expecting rainbows and unicorns, To be fair, you’re probably not expecting the 240-page bile-flecked projectile vomit of The Room, either, but you know you’re in for a roughish ride, and as such you’re normally reasonably prepared for the story to turn as black as a Spinal Tap album cover. Pick up a Charles Willeford novel, though, and you might be in for a surprise. Especially if that novel happens to be his “black Hoke Moseley”, Grimhaven. And especially if you liked the previous book in the series, Miami Blues.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Grimhaven is the ultimate transgressive novel. Even reading the thing is something of a transgressive act – Grimhaven was never published, never will be published and Betsy Willeford has been vocal in her disapproval of anyone who’s read the book outside of the one library in the US that has the manuscript as part of Willeford’s papers. Being a self-confessed Willeford nut, I’ve had the opportunity to read Grimhaven quite a few times over the last ten years or so, and I’ve always sucked it up and declined. But then my curiosity got the better of me in the wake of that piece I wrote for Grift about the movie adaptations of Willeford’s novels. I had cause to re-read Miami Blues, you see, discovered that it was a lot darker in tone and humour than the movie, and then wondered again about its black-mood sequel.
Grimhaven finds Hoke no longer working for the Miami-Dade police department, instead employed as a stock boy in his father’s hardware store on Singer Island. He handed in his resignation shortly after killing Freddy Frenger. Not that the killing wasn’t officially lawful – Frenger was a blithe psychopath, after all – but Hoke is haunted by that other bullet he put in Frenger’s skull to make sure the man was dead. He’s a killer, he knows it, and also know that’ll only be a matter of time before he does it again. So he retreats to a simple life – a hundred dollars a week, a rent-free apartment, no cigarettes, no liquor, two yellow poplin jumpsuits, a slow-cooked stew every night for dinner and a book of chess problems for entertainment. He’s healthier and happier than he’s ever been. And then his two teenage daughters turn up with a letter from their mother saying that it’s Hoke’s turn to look after them and it all goes to hell. “Whatever else you were, you were always a responsible man, and I know the girls will be safe and happy with you.”
Never has a closing compliment been so chillingly inaccurate.
Hoke is incapable of relating to his daughters. He hasn’t seen them in so long, they might as well be someone else’s, and he speaks to them in the same brusque, antisocial tone he uses for everyone. Rather than pay for an orthodontist, he gets his neighbour to pop round with a pair of toenail clippers to take of his youngest daughter’s braces. When his eldest is told to get out and look for a job, she’s reminded not to wear her Walkman while she’s on her rounds: “Only blacks do that. Another thing, Sue Ellen, put on a little make-up and some lipstick and tell them you’re seventeen. With your tits, you can easily pass for seventeen.” This dislocation and lack of paternal feeling is funny at first – absolutely so – but it leads inexorably to that one key event in the novel which still has the power to shock even when you know it’s coming.
To say that Hoke kills both his daughters in order to get back to that simple life is less a spoiler than it is a warning. When it happens, around 130 pages into the 200-page manuscript, the double murder is written as coldly as Hoke’s daily routine. This is just something that needs to be done in order to preserve his lifestyle and this odious transgression is more emotional than visceral, especially considering we’ve actually grown to like these two awkward, funny teenagers who are now “irrevocably dead”. We’ve seen how hardy the two girls are when it comes to both parents – a mother who’d rather gallivant around the country with her ballplayer boyfriend than take care of her kids; a father who doesn’t even recognise his daughters when they turn up because he hasn’t seen them in a decade – and how stoic they are when it comes to their new living arrangements. The double murder is sad, shocking, strangely in character and yet utterly unforgiveable. It is, in short, the reason why Grimhaven is described as the ultimate fuck-you to a publisher wanting a series character, and is also what makes Grimhaven for me the ultimate transgressive novel.
Imagine enjoying Miami Blues and picking up the second in the series only to see your “quirky” protagonist murder his children and then realise the only way to a peaceful, minimalist life is to go to prison. And then imagine understanding why he does it and following him anyway. When you’ve read Willeford’s other novels, you’ll see that the Hoke Moseley of Grimhaven (and indeed the other Moseley novels – the character doesn’t change that much) shares some DNA with the Richard Hudsons and Russell Haxbys and Jacob Blakes. It shouldn’t be the shock it is, but it’s testament to the power of Willeford as a transgressive (and downright Absurdist) writer that he manages to pull it off.
I understand why both Charles and Betsy Willeford didn’t want Grimhaven to see publication. It’s a dark, vicious book, albeit one that is beautifully written, and it’s absolutely indisputable that it would have wrecked Willeford’s career had it been published in the wake of Miami Blues. But now that Willeford seems dangerously close to falling out of print – outside of the fine volumes produced by Wit’s End and Dennis McMillan, I can’t think of any recent re-issues of his work – it seems a shame that Grimhaven isn’t on the shelves as a companion piece if nothing else. In many ways it foreshadows the breakdown Hoke suffers in Sideswipe, and it underlines the darker, less immediately likeable characteristics that make Hoke such an enduring character to readers like myself. It cries out for rediscovery and is more than likely already on many of the lists of forgotten books that clog Charles Ardai’s inbox. But more than that, I’d like to see it in the hands of those people reading Palahniuk, Ellis, Selby and – Christ, okay, fine – Larsson.
Let’s see them walk away from that.