Writing & Other Bloodsports
Charles Willeford was one of the last of the hard-boiled "paperback originals" authors. A runaway at the age of 12, he spent much of his youth in hobo jungles learning about "crawlers" and "nickeling up." He eventually joined the Army and took up writing while enlisted; years later he penned noir classics such as Pick-Up and Cockfighter, and the Miami Blues crime series that made his name.
Writing & Other Bloodsports, a collection of essays by and about Willeford, doesn't make for a very good introduction to this darkly humorous existentialist writer, but it is an entertaining, chatty literary scrapbook for aficionados. It's broken up into four sections: "Autobiography"; "Willeford by Others"; "Criticism, Reviews, and Obituaries"; and "'Advice' to Writers."
The "Autobiography" section is made up of abbreviated passages from I Was Looking for a Street, the author's sadly out-of-print and hard-to-find first autobiography. The pieces excerpted here deal with his youth on the streets of Los Angeles during the Depression and his years of picking up survival tips from other vagabonds.
"Willeford By Others" is mainly filled with light, playful homages to Willeford, with the exception of "The Black Mass of Brother Willeford" by William Robert Bittner, which explains the commercial market in which Willeford sold his books--the world of the newsstand-distributed paperback originals--and gives a rundown of his most important early works.
Highlights of Willeford's literary criticism include "Holistic Barbarian," his piece on tramp and boxer Jim Tully, who wrote proletarian autobiographical fiction and an esteemed biography of Charlie Chaplin; "Notes on Beat Writing," in which Willeford includes Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller under the classification "beat writer"; and "Chester Himes' Novels of Absurdity," an appreciation of the expatriate author best known for his detective series set in Harlem.
The most substantial part of the book comes under the heading "Advice to Writers" and is mostly a long essay, "New Forms of Ugly." Willeford wrote the piece as his master's thesis back in 1964, and it deals with "the immobilized hero" in modern literature. "The pattern of the modern immobilized hero was established in [Dostoevsky's] Notes From Underground," Willeford writes. And the common theme is "the frenetic, endless, and impossible attempt to escape from the restriction of the self, the personality, into a freedom that simply does not exist."
Even today, when there's no shortage of literary alienation, "New Forms of Ugly" feels very relevant. The sentiments expressed therein, leavened with the earthy humor of the other essays, provide some good insight into the roots of one of the last of the hardboiled writers.