Before this book I hadn’t read any Willeford. I had often heard him mentioned in the same breath as David Goodis and Jim Thompson (although after reading Pick-Up I don’t really see the Thompson comparison) but didn’t think much of it because people love to make lofty claims when it comes to discussing writers. That being said after devouring this book I can certainly see how he’s considered by some to be amongst the best of best when it comes to noir fiction.
Harry Jordan is a failed painter and blue-collar bum more focused on drinking than anything else. He works at a diner making just enough to get him the hooch he so sorely needs. While at work one day, Helen, a young, gorgeous blonde walks into the diner hungover and broke. After striking up a conversation with her Harry quits his job and they leave together. It turns out that much like Harry she is a liquor fiend. They bond over booze.
Their relationship progresses and unravels simultaneously. They move in together but at the expense of their own wellbeing. Instead of their relationship building one another up out of the nothingness they’ve made for themselves, it instead tears them down more, prevents them from ever crawling back out of the big black abyss. These two influence and encourage the worst in each other: the self-serving, futureless lifestyle of drinking themselves into oblivion.
In their one moment of what they think of as total lucidity they opt to kill themselves, thus escaping chronic alcohol abuse and all the troubles and ills of the world. The attempt proves fruitless but they are unable to go one living as they did, solely focusing on their next drink, the itching is there forever, the impossible need to have a permanent out from their hopeless lives.
One of the things that struck me most is that while the book focuses on a complete loser, similar to the work of David Goodis, the “bleakness” is handled much more matter-of-factly. Harry Jordan’s outlook is more absurdist than most of Goodis’ characters. The way I saw it is that Harry Jordan is a guy that has just given up and resigned to let anything and everything wash over him. He’ll go through the motions of acting angry when being stepped out on but his heart isn’t ever in it. Even when carving someone’s face up with a broken bottle it’s more like an attempt to feel something than it was an act of genuine passion.
Without giving anything away the last line of the book is a complete game-changer. I immediately wanted to go back and read it again with that new piece of information and see how it would colour my interpretation. I haven’t yet had a chance but I can almost guarantee it will change how I view Harry and Helen’s relationship at the very least.
For those interested, Pick-Up is available for free at Munsey’s. Everyone’s Kindle could use a little more Willeford.