The Shark-Infested Custard, by Charles Willeford

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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.

It’s chilling.

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.

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20 Responses to The Shark-Infested Custard, by Charles Willeford

  1. Bruce Reid says:

    I’m not just glad you found the book rewarding, Sheila, but also (as you might understand) a little relieved. Willeford’s one of those authors you recommend wholeheartedly, but also with some trepidation; his mastery is put in service to conveying experiences I don’t blame anyone for wanting to pass on by.

    That “airless belljar” captures him perfectly. The standard line on thrillers is that it becomes hard for you to catch your breath; reading Willeford makes the air around you stale, and uncomfortably close.

    An excellent review, and I hope you find more to enjoy in his catalog.

  2. Dan says:

    I read and enjoyed some of Willeford’s ‘Hoke Mosely’ novels (I think Miami Blues was made into a movie); I should probably add this one to The List.

  3. red says:

    Dan – yes! Miami Blues! The guy had an interesting life, the little I know about it – I am looking forward to reading more.

  4. red says:

    Bruce – totally – part of the tension of the book is I kept waiting for someone to come along and say, “Wow. You guys are all terrible. You really are. Buh-bye.” Nope. Didn’t happen. One of the reasons is that guys like that consciously edit out people who don’t “buy” their acts. They don’t try to “convert” people, they look for people who are easily swayed, susceptible, that they can snow. It’s all part of the act – that they don’t even know is an act.

    So the fact that Don – the only “normal” one – never really gets his “say” in the book (meaning: no first-person narration) is quite telling. I imagine what he would have to say would be pretty tormented, guilt-ridden, and therefore HUMAN.

    Willeford was no dummy – he lets the other guys speak. They are the ones who took charge of “that night”, and so it is their job to contextualize it FOR Don – “Here’s how it happened, right – and we will never speak of it again” – and Don is too much of a submissive wimp to fight back, to assert himself – he can’t even assert himself into narrating the book. He lets the other guys do it.

    All in all, a fascinating and very satisfying read.

    It was unsettling.

  5. Bruce Reid says:

    Sheila: “…he can’t even assert himself into narrating the book.”

    Beautiful observation.

    The Hoke Mosely books* offer an insight into what constitutes a hero in the Willeford universe, and the portrait’s as cracked and offbeat as you’d expect. Mosely doesn’t really do much more than drift through the novels, the crimes exploding sufficiently close to his margins that he can’t help but trip over them in time to wrap them up. And even at that, Willeford had to be talked out of a sequel to the first hit of his career that had Mosely committing the most unforgivable of all crimes.

    There’s a marvelous bit near the end of The Way We Die Now where Mosely, searching a strange house for a book to read and lull himself to sleep, stumbles upon the first sentence of Scaramouche (“He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.”), and rushes upstairs to finish the rest. I suspect Willeford would have wanted this for his own epitaph if Sabatini hadn’t beaten him to it. Unlike anything else out there, through and through.

    *And Cockfighter, though that’s a different beast altogether.

  6. red says:

    Bruce – I have a couple trips planned this summer, I think I’ll bring the Hoke Mosley books. I love the Scaramouche bit – how funny!! Willeford was obviously a film fan (you probably know more about that than I do) – but I loved all the movie references he gets into the Shark Infested Custard – the argument over what that movie was called where Bogart gets a whole new face? “Dark Passage” says one girl. “Nah, that’s not it,” says Hank. At least I think that’s how it goes. Too funny. And the most annoying part – is that he never gets his come-uppance – he never finds out that he’s wrong, and that Dark Passage IS the title of the film … The book is full of details like that. I suppose if you didn’t know Dark Passage, you wouldn’t “get” that moment, and how infuriating it is – but that was part of the fun of it for me.

  7. Please take the following for what its worth.

    There is a strain of crime fiction known as psycho noir. No real common traits connect all of them.

    The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson – Thompson is in many crime readers eyes, along with Willeford, the ne plus ultra of the psycho noir. That’s from a crime fiction perspective though and you bring different eyes to the table (a compliment). Thompson’s peak works were: The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280.

    Other books to consider trying

    The Ripley Books by Patricia Highsmith
    Waste by Eugene Marten
    The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson
    Small Crimes by David Zeltserman
    The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
    The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer
    Slammer by Allan Guthrie
    Blackburn by Bradley Denton

    I’m sure there are others but that is off the top of my head. They all are different and vary in quality but I always find its better to give someone a few too many recommendations and let them sort through.

    Thanks for letting us excerpt this piece. Please keep me posted if you tackle any other crime novels.

  8. red says:

    Brian – for some reason, your comment went into moderation. Sorry about that!

    Thanks so much for excerpting me, and linking back.

    I have read the Ripley books – I’m a huge fan of those. As is probably obvious, if there is some focus on psychology, I’m in. Books that are merely plot-driven rarely hold my interest. The hook, for me, is the criminal mind – the anti-social criminal mind, in particular.

    For example, Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite books of all time. It is a gripping thriller, almost unbearably tense at times, but for me the hook is Dostoevsky’s insight into the anti-social isolated Travis Bickle-ish mind of Raskolnikov. He just seems to nail it. THAT’S what keeps me turning the pages.

    But the other titles you mention I am not familiar with. Thanks so much for passing them on. I will have to check out Thompson as well. Is Killer Inside Me the one you would recommend I start with?

    And as a big film noir buff, I love the name “psycho noir”.

  9. red says:

    And Brian: if no common traits exist in “psycho noir”, then how would you characterize it? What differentiates it from other crime fiction?

  10. Some of the books DO share some common traits. Or at the very least they can be further grouped. I hesitate to do so because I’m afraid of over parsing.

    They may be told from the first person POV; the protag/narrator hiding something; a “true” story hiding below the “surface” story that needs to be sussed out by the reader or is just flat out told to the reader at some point. The Killer Inside Me, Waste, The Disassembled and Slammer all fit these traits for example. In Waste, the narrator is a cleaner in a high rise building. There are two sentences that appear early on when a woman, whom he has admired from afar, gets up to go to the bathroom: “When she was gone he jerked off in her shoes and cleaned them out with germicidal foam. You could use it on anything but woodwork”. Not only is his act shocking but the casual dismissal of it and the focus on the ability of the cleaner to clean a mess. It’s similar to the jump suit quote. This moment is also the first clue to the reader that something is amiss.

    Some of these books, Shark Infested Custard and The Open Curtain for example, are perhaps more sophisticated then some of the others.

    To the extent that there is a common trait it may just simply be that the main character/protag/narrator, in some capacity, suffers from a ***-pathology. Amoral, devoid of conscience, no moral compass or in some cases even tacit acknowledgment that such a thing exists. What I have found to be the case is that there is a disconnect between either what the narrator does and what he tells the reader or a disconnect between what he believes himself to be and what his actions say he is.

    Blackburn is actually a serial killer book, but is unlike any other SK book and transcends the form. No Hannibal Lechter big bad wolf monsters here.

    All of this is a bit of a ramble though and I’m not too sure how helpful. The one thing I can’t speak to is the realism of the portrayal in these books.

  11. red says:

    Brian – fascinating, thank you! Much of this loops into another piece I’ve been working on – about Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, and it is what I would call an “unselfaware man”. I wrote before that I believe Renner (so far, he hasn’t really done much) specializes in these “unselfaware” men. Sometimes it is an asset, like when he has played military men – sometimes it is a detriment – like when he played someone like Dahmer.

    I love a narrator that is somewhat unreliable. Meaning – it tells you only what it KNOWS – and you can’t know what you don’t know. So if the narrator has no idea that jerking off into someone’s shoes, first of all, is kind of weird and gross – but what’s even stranger and creepier is stopping to have a moment where you almost provide a product placement for the effectiveness of germicidal foam – with no awareness that what you have just done is … at the very least … kind of IKKY – I love that kind of writing.

    It’s like the best kind of acting. It doesn’t ever tell you the WHOLE story. It’s evocative, mysterious, suggesting there’s so much more to learn …

    Cary Grant in Notorious. I’ve seen that movie 40 times by now, and I am still curious about that character, and what drives him, what he is afraid of, what has damaged him so. SOMETHING has, but he’s totally tight-lipped about it. The only clue is in the final scene where he grasps Ingrid Bergman to his arms and whispers, “I was a fat-headed guy fulla’ pain.” That’s it. That’s all we get from him.

    Gives the audience so much to think about.

    It’s like the early Raskolnikov chapters in Crime and Punishment, where you are completely in his viewpoint. It’s harrowing to read, because you can tell, from the outside, that he should not be planning this murder, that nothing will come of it, that it’s a bad idea … but the way it’s written … he is a man driven to do this … It’s that whole “belljar” thing, and I LOVE it when a writer can capture that. I think it takes courage. So many writers feel the need to over-explain, or give psychological reasons, or justifications. When those things are left out, THEN you really ahve a character study.

    Interesting you mention Hannibal Lecter – I am not sure if you are familiar with Robert Hare’s work on pyschopathy (I quote from his book in my review) – but he mentions that the word “psycho” is often misunderstood nowadays, to mean “out of control”, “crazy” – and the sort of monstrous Hannibal is now the poster-child for “psychopathy”, which leads to a lot of confusion. The guys in Shark-Infested Custard remind me of actual guys I know – one in particular – and they’re the guys who give you the real shiver up the back of your spine. You are in the presence of something totally “other”.

  12. betsy willeford says:

    the opening line of Scaramouche may be the best single sentence description of Charles Willeford.

  13. sheila says:

    Betsy – are you somehow related to Mr. Willeford?

    I looked up the opening line of Scaramouche and agree: fantastic and apt description of the writing of this man.

  14. nomen nescio says:

    What really scares people like the reviewer and the commenters is the strong masculine energies so lovingly observed in Willeford’s masterpiece.

    I’m sorry assembled ladies and manginas, but this is how men of high, unthwarted libido and disabused experience think and act.

    You’re afraid of it because you live in a despicably coddled and emasculated culture. To you, these guys are “sociopaths.” Please. Enough canting weasel-words. These are men at any time and any place.

    Or did you think men were like Jonathan Frazen?

  15. sheila says:

    This is only your first comment here, but I now know how you will respond to about 100 different situations, judging from your predictable tone. Lots of men commented here too. I’m sorry that you live in a bell jar of your own fetid libido, but others like to let a little air in from time to time. It’s called civilization. And Willeford got that. That’s why he was able to describe it so accurately.

  16. kellyofsiam says:

    Willeford is one of my favorites….I’ve read much of his stuff. While I enjoy his novels, his autobiographical I Was Looking for a Street & Something About a Soldier grabbed my imagination…particularly the latter as he describes life in the US Army stationed in pre-WWII Philippines. They compare well with James Jones and the remarkable
    James Crumley’s One to Count Cadence. Willeford’s autobiograpical stuff reminds me of the amazing Earl Thompson and his autobiographical A Garden of Sand & Tattoo.

    In any case, I really enjoy reading your reviews and comments…I turned several of my friends on to your writing. By the way I am 66 years old and the youngest of my group of friends who follow and actually talk about your writing.

    Thanks

  17. sheila says:

    Kellyofsiam – I love to hear a bit who reads me, and love to hear that a gentleman of your age and your group of friends would enjoy and talk about what I write! Thank you so much!

    And thanks for the recommendation – I was not aware that Willeford had written some autobiographical works.

  18. Peyton G. Ellsworth says:

    The Willeford protagonist in his early “The High Priest of California” gives these guys a run for their money in the loathsome sociopath department. I gather Mr. Nescio would regard him as a role model.

    • sheila says:

      Peyton – Hey there!

      and haha, about Mr. Nescio – forgot about this thread and his toxic response. I’m a woman writing on the Net, used to that sort of thing!

      Thanks for the recommendation – I have not read The High Priest of California and I will check it out! He’s a phenomenal writer – and psychologist.

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