It sure as shit ain’t hard to see why Jason Starr, the author of white collar noirs like Hard Feelings and Nothing Personal, is such a fan of The Shark-Infested Custard. Seems to the Nerd that Starr has been talking this book up in every other interview I’ve read with him over the years, and now that I’ve finally got around to it, I fucking just get his admiration for it something fierce. Like much of Starr’s early work, Charles Willeford’s novel concerns itself with a group of young professionals who may at first seem fairly typical but soon reveal themselves to be horrifying sociopaths. Also bringing it in line with Starr’s novels, The Shark-Infested Custard is by turns hilariously satiric and utterly harrowing. But unlike anything Starr has yet produced, this fucking minor masterpiece is almost indescribably fucking bizarre.
It’s the story of four friends living in a singles apartment in 1970’s Miami. Larry Dolman is the odd man of the group, an almost Aspberger-y ex-cop now working for a private security firm. Eddie Miller flew planes in Nam, now works towards being a commercial airline captain. Don Luchessi is making a shit-ton selling high-priced British silverware to Cuban newlyweds and also taking a break from his domineering wife and precocious young daughter. Hank Norton has the sweetest set-up, working just a few hours a week as a drug rep but still leading the Southeast in sales, leaving more time for plowing through “stewardae” and office pool gals. But when a drunken night’s bet goes wrong, our charming playboys are soon forced into committing murder and other fucked up acts.
Now that sounds like a solid first act that will lead to some great spiralling-towards-their-inevitable-doom type shit. Thing is, the murder-bet shit all goes down in the first fifty pages, with the novel then switching narrators and jumping ahead a few months, everything now apparently easy-fucking-peasy. The Shark-Infested Custard does this a number of times, actually, and it’s certainly fucking jarring every time, but also kind of brilliant. This is not a juggernaut-paced thrill ride, but a portrait of amoral (but ridiculously relatable) guys trying to navigate their careers and their dicks through their late twenties and early thirties. Each is forced to confront something about themselves and make a choice, one that is violent either physically or emotionally, but in a Sopranos-esque sort of way, where instead of their lives and psyches being shattered they just sort of get colder and tougher through the experience. Except for the one who, you know, doesn’t grow more jaded. Yeah, that guy’s fucked.
It’s a harsh-as-all-hell world that Willeford has created for us in the The Shark-Infested Custard, and often one that feels all-too-real, but this shit is also scathingly funny. The vanity, the shallowness, the disregard for women – one-night stands or otherwise – it’s satire that gets you laughing then grates against your bones upon further reflection. To them, Miami is a paradise of sheer hedonism, and of course, like all paradises (Or is it “paradi?” Never had to pluralizes “paradise” before), our heroes must eventually be cast out. It’s essentially about their coming of age, yet whether such unfeeling man-children can truly grow up I’ll leave to you, dear reader, to discover for yourself.
I hope all the Nerd’s hoidy-toidy bullshit talk hasn’t discouraged you from picking up this fucking gem. The Shark-Infested Custard is far from what you’d expect of a traditional crime novel, but isn’t that, you know, a fucking good thing sometimes? Just know that this shit is dark as hell, brutally funny, occasionally shockingly violent, and endlessly surprising. If you can spot how this fucker ends…I dunno, maybe you read it before the amnesia-inducing head trauma you suffered a few years ago and have pieces of the novel still weaving around in your subconscious or some shit like that (jesus, sure stretched out that explanation long enough!). This is one of those books surprises you endlessly but never in exactly the same way. Off-beat in the best way and kick ass in all the other ways, it’s hard to recommend a book more highly than this fucking three-legged, eight-eyed monster of a book.