Jump suits, as leisure wear, have been around for several years, but it’s only been the last couple of years that men have worn them on the street, or away from home or the beach. There’s a reason. They are comfortable, and great to lounge around in – until you get a good profile look at yourself in the mirror. If you have any gut at all – even two inches more than you should have – a jump suit, which is basically a pair of fancied up coveralls, makes you look like you’ve got a pot-gut. I’ve got a short-sleeved blue terrycloth jump suit I wear around the pool once in a while but I would never wear it away from the apartment house. When I was on the force and weighed about 175, I could have worn it around town, but since I’ve been doing desk work at National, I’ve picked up more than twenty pounds. My waistline has gone from a 32 to a 36, and the jump suit makes me look like I’ve got a paunch. It’s the way they are made.
That paragraph comes early on in the novel The Shark-Infested Custard, by Charles Willeford, and seems pretty benign on the face of it, right? The narrator, a man, obviously has a lot of thoughts and opinions about jump suits, and perhaps he goes on a bit too long about them, but there really isn’t anything frightening about what he is saying, in terms of the thoughts and concepts being expressed. He’s talking about jump suits and weight gain. Rather feminine of him, I would say, especially because he makes a big show of his macho qualities and his cocksmanship. However, there is nothing alarming about the paragraph in and of itself. But because it comes where it does, because he chooses to give us a discourse on jump suits in the middle of a night gone horribly horribly wrong, it becomes one of the most frightening passages in a book full of frightening passages. I remember how much it jarred me when I first read it. I am reading about these four guys who pick up a girl, and things start to tailspin, quick, and in the middle of it, our narrator gives us THAT paragraph? Something is wrong with the narrator. Because the first section is first-person, from his perspective, he doesn’t tip his hands to us about who he is, because people in general don’t talk that way about themselves. They just behave as seems normal to them. This is hard to get across in a narration, and Willeford does it brilliantly. To Larry Dolman, the violent events he finds himself in, are really no big deal – they just have to be handled, made to disappear. He has no adrenaline rush, no panic, and in the midst of it all, he notices that someone is wearing a jump suit, and he has a lot of thoughts about jump suits, so he shares them. No reason why he shouldn’t.
The Shark-Infested Custard tells the stories of four guys living in Miami. They have become friends because they all live in the same singles-only apartment complex. Proximity is their only bond. The book switches narration between the four guys, and because the book starts off with Larry, it sets the tone. Larry is an ex-cop. He now works security. He seems pretty normal, but the jump suit paragraph is the giveaway that something’s not quite right with this guy. Hank is a representative for a drug company, selling pharmaceuticals to local doctors, and he’s so good at what he does that he works very little to keep himself going. He is a ladies’ man of a particularly brutal kind, and all of the other guys look up to him. He can find tail anywhere. Eddie is an airline pilot, and he is dating a widow, who maybe is not as young as he would like her to be. But he gets something out of the relationship. She is so devoted to him, always there for him. Maybe he does want out, maybe he can find something better, but he’s not exactly searching. Then there is Don, a Catholic who is having problems in his marriage, and has moved out. He is a silverware salesman, he has a 10 year old daughter (and he seems to have no feelings about her whatsoever, except that he doesn’t want his wife to “win” and get custody of her), and he can’t get a divorce, because of his religious convictions. These mismatched gentleman hang out together, play pool, have cocktails, and their banter is so alienating that I could barely pay attention to it. I am biased against such men, with good reason. If you meet one in real life, your best bet is to just be kind, pleasant, smile and nod, and then walk away, soul and spirit intact. Such men have a scent, and women would do well to learn to recognize that scent and stay far far away from such individuals. It’s not that they are in a state of arrested development, that’s not it at all. It’s not that they are boorish or openly violent. It’s much worse than that. It’s that they are narcissists, and other people don’t actually seem quite real to them. They have gotten away with this for a long time, because they have developed very convincing acts of being “normal”, but make no mistake: they are not.
I was first alerted to Charles Willeford’s books in the comments section to this post, on psychopaths and morality, and ordered The Shark-Infested Custard immediately.
By switching points-of-view, Willeford keeps the reader guessing and on edge. I was afraid of Larry almost instantly because of his jump suit monologue. It’s one of those things that an FBI profiler would have picked up on immediately, or a homicide detective, alert to the vagaries of psychology, and what is normal and what is not. Larry doesn’t seem like a bad guy, not at all. He’s just a bit flat, in his response to things, but I justified that FOR him, in my head, at first: “That’s probably because he was a cop … he’s seen a lot … he can’t afford to get all worked up.” This was merely a defense mechanism on my part. (I love that Willeford is able to create characters that I, as a reader, feel I must defend myself against. That’s pretty powerful and rare.) So I tried to make excuses for Larry at first. Someone like Larry actually counts on responses like that one of mine. He counts on people to make excuses for him, it is a perfect smokescreen for the lackings in his emotional makeup. But again, and here is Willeford’s strength: None of this is spelled out. First-person narration tosses you into someone else’s point of view, relentlessly. You have to figure it out as you go.
The second section of the book, much longer, is from Hank’s point of view. Now I had gotten to know Hank from the first section, seen him through Larry’s eyes, and I found him to be rather scary and amoral. He picks up a girl who is clearly only about 13 years old at the drivein, merely to win a bet he had with the other guys. He seems to have no qualms about this illegal and despicable behavior. “So? She’s a girl. I just picked her up. Pay up.” He has no moral code, clearly. This is, at least, what I got about him from Larry’s point of view. Like I mentioned, though, that “jump suit paragraph” was scarier than any of Hank’s actual actions, and was a clue that if these guys were sociopaths of some kind, Larry was off-the-charts, Larry was the one who was beyond the pale. He didn’t have to do anything wrong or bad to clue me in. Hank you could actually work with. Maybe. But Larry? If you ever meet a Larry? It would be best to just turn around and walk away, without looking back.
Hank’s section of the book does not pick up where we left off with Larry. It takes an entirely different direction, and obviously takes place some time after the events of the first section, and Hank doesn’t mention those events at all. He instead tells the story of his encounter with a woman named Jannaire, and how obsessed he was with her, and how it turns out she was married (at least she seems to be) and her husband is now trying to kill Hank. So. I kept WAITING, through the second section, for Hank to at least acknowledge the horrifying events described by Larry in the FIRST section, with the 13 year old girl, and the man in the jump suit, and all the rest … but Hank doesn’t bring it up at all.
Here, here, is where we can tell we are in the presence of a great writer. Charles Willeford very carefully crafts this multi-voiced crime novel so that the reader is placed in a constant state of imbalance and un-ease. It was a truly de-stabilizing experience. The lack of judgment (mentioned in the comment by Bruce, who recommended the book) is one of the key reasons why the book is so effective. By the end, I felt like I was in a belljar of amoral reality. No one spoke up and said, “This is wrong”, or “God, we’re douchebags, aren’t we” and why would they? That wasn’t true for them. They were all behaving according to their own codes. The one man in the group who has some semblance of normal human emotions such as regret, empathy, guilt – is clearly the worst off. You don’t envy him. You don’t think, “If only they could all be like him.” When one operates in a world where the norms are skewed, then it is nearly impossible to keep your own compass pointing where you want it to point. This is one of the reasons why how you choose your friends, the boundaries you set with people, your understanding of what you can tolerate, and what you cannot, is so important. You have to know what you are letting into your life. Don, the only one of the group who seems to have normal responses to things, loses his bearings because of the company he keeps. Well, shame on Don. Part of being a grownup is knowing when to protect yourself from the corruption of others.
Hank says, in regards to Larry:
Larry had a literal mind, and although I knew him well enough by now to know that he would and did take many things literally, it was a characteristic that one never gets used to completely. His interpretation of movies, for example, was maddening. He was unable to grasp an abstract conception. When we discussed Last Tango in Paris, he claimed that the reason Brando’s wife had purchased identical dressing gowns for her husband and her lover was because she got them on sale. This absurd, practical interpretation of the identical dressing gowns makes Larry seem almost feminine in his reasoning, but there was nothing effeminate about him. He was tough, or as the Cubans in Miami say, un hombre duro – a hard man.
This one paragraph made me realize how unreliable a narrator Larry was, at least in regards to himself, and suddenly the chilling jump suit paragraph made total sense.
I also wouldn’t have pegged Hank as someone even capable of such a sensitive and perceptive analysis, but that just exacerbated my feeling that Larry was another kind of animal entirely, an “other”, a true sociopath, walking out among the living.
Willeford’s gift is in switching voices and narrative styles as the book goes on, and The Shark-Infested Custard starts with such a terrible event, something that would ruin the lives of anyone even semi-normal, and the mere fact that 200 pages go on without anyone ever mentioning it again tells you the creepy realm we are in here. But karma’s a bitch, isn’t it, and eventually “that night” does come up again, and the veil of agreed-upon silence is shattered, with terrible consequences. Reading the book, however, I didn’t know that “that night” would come up again, and so I succumbed to their creepy view of the world, where something “like that” can happen, and make almost no dent on how you live your life, how you see yourself, how you consider your soul and spirit. There is no searching of conscience, no questioning: “If I am capable of that, then what does that mean about me …”
Larry, Hank, Eddie and Don end up seeming like visions from out of a nightmare, the kind of guys you warn your daughters about, certainly, but also the kinds of men that you want to always be on guard for. Because they are out there. And when they look at you, they do not see you. They see a mirror. If it is a flattering reflection, they like you and flatter you back. (This is why such men can be addictive, because they throw themselves into that type of intimacy – but only if they are receiving a flattering reflection – Your job is to be their flattering mirror. Nothing else.) But if you do not play by their rules, and if you return to them an unflattering reflection, if you resolutely cannot be someone else’s gleaming mirror of flattery, due to temperament or lack of interest, then look out. Such individuals can be brutal when they are forced to realize that their projected self hasn’t “snowed” everyone. Look out. Run for cover.
As Robert Hare, one of the top researchers on psychopaths, explains in his groundbreaking book on the subject, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us:
Psychopaths are generally well satisfied with themselves and with their inner landscape, bleak as it may seem to outside observers. They see nothing wrong with themselves, experience little personal distress, and find their behavior rational, rewarding, and satisfying; they never look back with regret or forward with concern. They perceive themselves as superior beings in a hostile, dog-eat-dog world in which others are competitors for power and resources. Psychopaths feel it is legitimate to manipulate and deceive others in order to obtain their “rights,” and their social interactions are planned to outmaneuver the malevolence they see in others.
The Shark-Infested Custard is 260 pages long, a streamlined book, no fat on it whatsoever, but the experience is harrowing, relentless, with no “hey wait a minute, guys, let’s take a step back” voice anywhere in sight. These guys would laugh at such a voice. They wouldn’t even get it. You know that such people exist on the planet. Maybe you’ve met one or two of them. I know I have. But to spend so much time with them here, in their airless belljar, where they do not question their own actions, because why would they? – where they don’t seem to have any experience of other people as being “real”, is like something out of a nightmare.
I was thrilled when the book ended, when I could put it down, and remind myself, thankfully, that I have a moral compass, that I believe in empathy, that I have good friends who can keep me on track if I lose my way.
Willeford is a master unbalancer.