Smile, Villain, for the Wolf is American: On Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California

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The High Priest of California–a “smiling villain:” treacherous, lecherous–a beast (a wolf in a suit). It’s good fun. And, in this way, Willeford’s classic pulp tale of a used car salesman’s exploits, the portrait is painted of a man (Mr. Russell Haxby) in love with the world, a monster of life obsessed by women, by the pursuit of women, well, one particular woman–a tragic woman. Simply stated, this book is the tale of a man bent on destruction for gratification. Haxby wants what he wants and will get what he wants whatever the consequences. No–this is a book about consequences, about how to dodge consequences at all costs in order to preserve one’s solitude. This is not your typical noir, crime, pulp novel–it’s the study of a character and immersion into the mind of a sociopath. Enter the muck.

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Willeford’s poem “Sportsman” reads, “I dipped my finger in love/And found pain./I dipped my Finger in hate/And found pain.” It ends with the lines: “But there was nothing in/Between:/Tonight I’ll go bowling.” This shift from the metaphoric, the power of what is behind (underneath, projected onto, created) to the mundane–the distraction–is how Willeford’s High Priest of California makes sense of things. It reads as something so quick that one must pause to breathe in the layers. In some ways, it is the story of the pursuit of the ideal, the journey toward the end and the disgust that occurs upon reaching the destination. Or, it could be a spin-off on that classic line, “Be careful what you wish for…” But, Haxby is too careful, too conniving. He knows better than to be a victim.

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E.M. Cioran often discusses “lucidity” as that moment when meaning is stripped from things and one perceives things in a way that transforms that thing from what it means to a sense of what it is (or is not–the thing shattered). An example would be perceiving the corpse inherent in a living person, the corpse that one will eventually become. Another example would be to conjure a goal and imagine it through to the end and, in doing so, choose not to act in any way (to resign oneself to the bed, to the horizontal). Cioran’s “lucidity” or “dose of lucidity” is apt when we look at High Priest of California. Haxby, like Cioran, suffers from this dose–comes to perceive things in a way that alters his entire malicious plan in a new direction. He maunders onward.

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“Tonight I’ll go bowling.” Yes, there is the spirit of America in this book, a gritty, yet Technicolor America of the 1950s (or thereabouts)–the American man at his lowest. It is sharp suits, hats, hearty breakfasts, American cars, Italian food, dancing, smoking cigarettes, slugging gin, or a hot towel on the face to sink into the abyss. It is a nice entrance into the world of Charles Willeford, novelist supreme, a nice entrance into a spiral of madness.

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