Thursday, 25 April 2019

CHARLES WILLEFORD - PICK-UP (1954)


Synopsis/blurb....

Prowling the grimy streets of San Francisco, low-life Helen is a beautiful, sensuous drunk - and a pathetically easy pick-up. That is until she meets Harry, who buys her a coffee and takes her home with him. Harry just wants to help, but before long he and Helen are both adrift in a sea of alcohol - until Harry conceives the ultimate crime ......

Another re-read from long ago, sometime early 90s maybe, but certainly long enough that elements of it pricked at my consciousness without total recall spoiling the surprise element of the tale.

Alcoholic man meets alcoholic woman and almost immediately you get a sense that it isn't going to end well. Harry on his own is functional and managing his drinking. Work, drink, work, drink, run up a tab, get an advance on wages, drink more, get paid, clear tab, drink more, work, repeat ad nauseum.

Harry has failed periodically throughout his life.... as an artist, with the army, as a husband, as a father, as a teacher and here again he fails. Helen's issues and history aren't explored to the same degree...... a failed marriage, a difficult relationship with her disapproving mother and a flight to the city of San Francisco.

As a couple, at least there's some solace in not drinking alone. There are brief attempts, driven by Harry to seek help for their drinking - treatment sought and a drying out period of forced abstinence. There's an effort to establish a routine of a work life and regular domesticity, but Helen lacks the strength to persist and soon Harry is dragged back down to the gutter. One way out of their mutual misery beckons.

A dark book, a bit of a character study of lives ruined by addiction, assisted by a weakness of character. It's interspersed by the small tolerances and kindnesses shown to them throughout the book.... by their landlady, Mick the bar owner, and to Harry by his jailers later on in the book. Willeford's surprise twist two lines from the end of the book, does give you pause to reflect and reconsider everything - absolutely everything you've read before.

Not my favourite Willeford book - the Hoke Moseley series he started 30 years after this one are - but it comes close.



4.5 from 5

Read - April, 2019
Published - 1954
Page count - 196
Source - owned copy
Format - hardback omnibus edition*



* The omnibus consists of Pick-Up, The Burnt Orange Heresy and Cockfighter. I originally read the paperback version of this with the cover illustrated up top. I bought the omnibus as I couldn't find a reasonably priced copy of one of the other two in the set - The Burnt Orange Heresy from memory.

17 comments:

  1. This does sound like a very dark book, Col. I think that, if I do read it, I'll have to read it at a time when I can handle that sort of bleakness. Still, it sounds like a good character study with a solid noir plot.

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    1. I think you might enjoy it if you try it Margot, but yes you might need to be in a certain mood-space before tackling it. I think I would need to invest myself in a different kind of book after reading something so dark. I couldn't tackle something else of a similar ilk immediately afterwards.

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  2. I've read only a couple of Willefords -- just enough to know I should read more! Thanks for the reminder.

    Hm, I see I have a copy of Pick-Up somewhere . . .

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    1. I went on a big binge on his work, early 90s including his two autobiographies. Never got to everything and put him away for a few years. I think I kept most for re-reads. I hope you like Pick-Up when you get to it.

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  3. What a collection! I've been wanting to sink my teeth into some crime books, but didn't know where to start. This is great!

    P.S. I was looking for a way to contact you directly, but I was wondering if you'd like a free copy of my book for an Amazon review? I'm a new author and it would be great to have feedback from someone that's read so much. You can see my book here: https://amzn.to/2XNzPik Thanks so much for considering.

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  4. This does sound a bit dark, and I want to try the Hoke Moseley series first, but I have not read anything by Willeford yet.

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    1. I hope you enjoy the Moseley series Tracy. It's one I want to get back to.

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  5. This is a great book, Col. I did a post on it a few years ago. These two characters are vividly revealed by Willeford, and the twist at the end is a knockout.

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  6. I love the idea of the twist, but I think the subject matter might be too dark for me. I did read a Willeford book many years ago, don't remember what it was but think I enjoyed it...

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    1. Ah that's a shame, I'd be curious as to what title it was. You might enjoy this one, you never know....

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  7. Replies
    1. Ha - TBOH was scarcer than rocking horse pooh, but that was a few years ago. Maybe they are all readily available now?

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  8. Haha!Sounds like I need to pull the trigger on my Amazon order. I found a used paperback copy for a decent price. The hardcover is going for over half a grand and the paperback new is in the hundreds.

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    1. Jesus, some crazy prices. Hope you find an affordable copy.

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