The Psychopaths of Charles Willeford’s Shark Infested Custard

shark infested custard charles willefordBy Sheila O’Malley

[Ed note: I saw this article on The Shark Infested Custard and knew that it deserved a wider readership then simply spreading a link via the normal channels. So I contacted the author and with her permission Spinetingler is happy to present “The Psychopaths of Charles Willeford’s Shark Infested Custard“.]

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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.

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This is a partial reprint, to finish reading the analysis please see the full, original post here.

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