When I first knew Willeford, in the late 1970s, he had only a small cult following. He hadn't published a book in seven years, and his twelve novels to that point were all out of print. He was teaching at Miami-Dade Community College and reviewing mysteries for The Miami Herald. My mother was a student in his creative-writing class, and he and his future wife, Betsy, became good friends of my family's.
Willeford was soon a fixture at my parents' parties, skulking by the kitchen door to the patio with a cigarette in one hand and a bourbon in the other, telling dirty jokes or stomach-turning anecdotes from his years in the Army. After growling out the one about eating dog in the Philippines, or the one about the coed long-distance-urination contest, he would drag on his cigarette, the glow illuminating his great white moustache and waggish blue eyes. Then he'd exhale, his ample belly undulating with laughter as if he'd just heard the story for the first time himself.
As a very young man, Willeford considered himself a poet, and he continued to write poetry throughout his life. His real writing career, though, began with a series of eight novels published as pulp paperbacks in the 1950s and early 1960s. In them Willeford fashioned his own brand of hard-boiled prose. But he was not writing for the pulp market; that was simply where he was able to sell his work. In his first book, High Priest of California (1953), a used-car salesman goes to great lengths to seduce an innocent woman for sport, gravely disrupting her life. But the writing is hardly lurid, and the protagonist is anything but what you might expect. He listens to Bartók while reading T. S. Eliot aloud, and as a hobby he rewrites Ulysses in contemporary American vernacular. Willeford's books also offer lots of practical advice: the reader of Pick-Up (1955), the story of two down-and-out alcoholics keeping each other alive in San Francisco, learns how to fry a steak properly, how to reuse coffee grounds, and how to keep ants out of a dresser.
The novels did, on occasion, work in issues of real import. The Black Mass of Brother Springer (1958) is about a white writer who abandons his wife to accept a fake ordination and assume the ministry of a black church in a northern-Florida city. Sam Springer is a characteristically Willefordian amalgam of selfish mercenary and well-meaning drifter. He bounces through life like a pinball, responding shrewdly to the moment and giving little thought to the future. But Black Mass is also an early depiction of the civil-rights revolution in the South: one subplot, paralleling the Rosa Parks incident, follows the city's reaction to a black woman's refusal to give up her seat on a bus.
The true earmark of these paperbacks, however, was humor—a distinctively crotchety, sometimes raunchy, often genre-satirizing humor. The very first lines of High Priest of California are a send-up of the dime-novel tough guy.
I slipped a dollar under the wicket and a sullen-lipped cashier asked me for a penny.
"You're making the change," I told her.
A similar playfulness pervaded Willeford's later, more mainstream novels. The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), for example, is one long satire on art (a favorite topic—Willeford studied painting in France and Peru after World War II), art criticism, and art collecting. It's the story of James Figueras, a bachelor, cad, and freelance art critic in Palm Beach, and his fascination with the (fictional) French artist Jacques Debierue. A murder occurs, but the real violence is Willeford's attack on artistic pretension: Debierue is supposedly the founder of the Nihilistic Surrealism movement—the missing link between Dada and Surrealism—who retires into famous seclusion after the creation of one work, No. One, an empty frame mounted around a crack in a wall. According to Figueras, "The fact that he used the English No. One instead of Nombre une may or may not've influenced Samuel Beckett to write in French instead of English, as the literary critic Leon Mindlin has claimed." Willeford also has fun with his hero: "But I wasn't getting my work done. Work is important to a man. Not even a Helen of Troy can compete with a Hermes. No matter how wonderful she is, a woman is only a woman, whereas 2,500 words is an article."