Introduction to The Black Mass of Brother Springer by Charles Willeford
The World as Willeford and Idea
Great writing, my old friend Gene Wolfe says, lies not in doing something better than someone else, but in doing something that no one else can do at all.
Nailed in place for some weeks now while recovering from surgery, I've had the rare blessing of unbridled reading and, with this introduction promised, spent those weeks reading and rereading, with nary an excuse in sight, the works of Charles Willeford, who seems to me the very exemplar of what Gene meant.
No one writes like Willeford. In much the same way as Jim Thompson and David Goodis, he was able to take advantage of a window of opportunity that existed in the Fifties and hitch a ride on the mile-long train of original paperback novels. Turning in product that seemed to conform, these writers in fact produced books largely sui generis, books deeply stained with the personalities of their authors, like the indelible grime beneath a mechanic's fingernails. "I had a hunch that madness was the predominant theme and normal condition for Americans in the second half of the century," Willeford once said, a madness that spilled into every word he wrote, from the sinister car salesman of High Priest of California to Miami Blues' Freddy Frenger and Sideswipe's Troy Louden. The normal condition. Reading Willeford's work in bulk, as I have done these past weeks, can be like attending a family reunion of Lou Fords, walking into a roomful of Ripleys.
It's with Chester Himes, I think, that Willeford best compares; they seem at times two sides of a single coin. Both were literary writers whose tales of obsessed individuals fascinate as much as they repulse. Both, willfully, wrote from society's narrowest outside edge, each phrase and scene saturated with a sense of the absurd, of suffering, of the many ways in which society twists its people into monsters and the many ways in which they visit violence back upon that society. In Himes and Willeford, savagery and comedy are forever bedmates. They do not subvert the genre so much as they defy it: Don't hold back, baby, show me what you can do, show me what you have.
As I wrote in my book Difficult Lives, I believe that popular fiction at its best offers a unique portrait of its time. It sends tendrils down to the very baserock of what we are as a nation and who we are as individuals, shines a light into corners where crouch our deepest fears, unvoiced assumptions, basest aspirations. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells us far more about cold-war paranoia and the American dream as lived in the Fifties than any shelf full of sociology texts.
The Black Mass of Brother Springer appeared in 1958, Willeford's fourth published novel. High Priest of California, 1953, had seen print as half of a Royal Giant, bound with Talbot Mundy's adventure novel Full Moon. Willeford wrote it while stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base; weekends, he'd drive down to San Francisco, check into the Powell Hotel, and spend both days writing. Its tale of used car salesman Russell Haxby introduced the kind of amoral protagonist that was to become a Willeford trademark. In 1955 Beacon Books, like Royal a wing of Universal Publishing and Distributing, brought out Pick-Up, with its tale of a failed painter and the woman who, walking into the diner where he works as short-order cook, changes his life. A year later Beacon issued Willeford's third novel, Wild Wives, double-bound with a reprint of High Priest.
When Black Mass came out, Willeford was thirty-nine years old, two years retired after twenty years' service in the Army and Air Force. If Cockfighter, as many believe, is Willeford's purest existentialist novel, one to be taken at the level of Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses Don't They and Albert Camus' L'Etranger — and this is arguably the case — then Black Mass is a close second, its double: another monstre délicat, its semblable, its frère. For the existentialist, consciousness, the very core of our being, is an emptiness waiting to be filled by arbitrary choices. We must practice faith in the absence of belief. We become ourselves through our actions.
The Black Mass of Brother Springer was Willeford's original title, one which Universal, more comfortable with titles on the order of Hitch-Hike Hussy, quickly rejected. The publisher also rejected Willeford's tongue-in-cheek suggestion for an alternative title, Nigger Lover, bringing the book out as Honey Gal. An entry in the author's diary for September 1957 states that Bob Abramson of Universal Publishing bought the novel for $250 on acceptance and $250 on publication, "a hell of a low price for six weeks of hard work."
Briefly, the novel tells the story of a stalled writer who, desperately trolling for a story, meets a retired Army sergeant who has taken over the Church of God's Flock in a kind of preemptive strike and now is about to jump ship. First, though, he ordains Sam Springer and sends him off to Jax to serve as pastor of an all-black church. There, Brother Springer becomes entangled in the civil rights movement, including a proposed boycott of city services.
On my part, I had no personal motives, nothing to gain one way or another. I didn't believe in what I was doing, and I didn't disbelieve in it either. I was indifferent. But the plan was interesting, almost exciting, and I wanted to see how it would work out.
The novel is replete with typically marvelous bits of description ("The outside of the chicken was a beautiful color — the shade of a two-day bruise on the tender side of a woman's thigh") and typically Willefordian slyness (during Brother Springer's initial sermon, on Kafka, he muses: "And I was trying to make them think! How unfair of me, how unlike a minister of the gospel!").
Beware enterprises that require new clothes, Emerson warned. Willeford is seldom funnier than when writing about clothes (Hoke Moseley's yellow jumpsuits come to mind), and each of Springer's transmogrifications is heralded by new clothing. When, after selling his novel, he goes to his workplace to resign, he dresses in
a pair of leather sandals, a pair of red linen slacks, a pale yellow sport shirt imprinted with tiny red rickshaws, and a white linen jacket. I placed dark sunglasses over my nose, and a straw hat with a solid yellow band upon my head. These clothes had been purchased several weeks before and had been put aside for the occasion.
On the bus to Jax, now become Brother Sam Deuteronomy Springer, he muses on the puissance of his ill-fitting dark twill suit.
As the Abbott had implied, clerical garb made the minister; I had not been given any other instructions to go with the uniform. The mere donning of my black suit changed me, not only in the eyes of the world, but in my own eyes.
And near book's end, following his apostasy:
We looked through racks until I found a suit that I wanted. The material was thin, a mixture of dacron, nylon and polished Egyptian cotton. The color was a glistening tint of powder blue, matching my eyes exactly. The jacket, without shoulder padding, hugged my round shoulders perfectly....
In less than an hour I was a new man, if clothes do make the man. To go with my blue suit I had purchased a Hathaway button-down shirt with tiny blue-and-red checks. A knitted maroon tie looked well with the shirt, and to match the tie I had chosen a pair of all-wool maroon socks. Broad-winged cordovan shoes and a chestnut Tyrolean hat with a gay yellow feather in the band completed my outfit.
As Marshall Jon Fisher pointed out in a piece for the Atlantic a few years back, Sam Springer is "a characteristically Willefordian amalgam of selfish mercenary and well-meaning drifter," careening through life with little thought for the future, borne from one moment's need, one moment's chance opportunity, to the next. He became a writer as capriciously as he becomes a reverend, he leaves his wife with hardly a moment's regret or serious consideration, he sheds the old skin and slithers away.
In some regards, of course, America is a land with no past or future, only an eternal present, and Willeford's work is filled with characters looking to start over, as though continual reinvention were the very juice and squeezed pulp of the American experience: Hoke Moseley in his return to Singer Island, Troy Louden with his one big score before retiring to Haiti, Frank Mansfield whose life will end (and begin again?) once he wins Cockfighter of the Year.
It's a wonderful, defining moment when late in the novel ex-sergeant Abbott Dover returns to tell Brother Springer that he made a mistake in ordaining him, to admit that he's read Springer's novel, and to thank Springer for making it possible for him to find love. Of the boycott he asks:
"But do you care? Does it make any difference to you, Springer, one way or the other?"
"No. Not really." I didn't lie to Dover. His flat blue eyes with their frank and piercing stare demanded the truth and nothing else.
"I found that out when I read your novel. A clever little book. Why not? You're a well-read man, and the characters said brittle and clever things, the surface brilliance of a thousand books you've read, and not an original idea of your own on a single page. Cute situations, complications in the right places, and the inevitable straight romantic plot with the obvious ending. You don't know a damned thing about people, and even less about yourself."
That the novel bears indelibly the mark of its creator, all of that creator's bright and dark, was something Willeford believed deeply; it is also something that, reading him, we come to believe. If popular fiction is the secret and true history of its time, so can the novel at its best become the inmost record of self. In an essay from 1953, published thirty-five years later in Mystery Scene and reprinted in Writing & Other Blood Sports (Dennis McMillan Publications), Charles Willeford addresses the creative process:
The novel is a case history of the writer. It is the story of his life written as well as he can write it. It never ends; it goes on day after day, year after year. He is his own hero, his own heroine, his villain, his minor characters — the thoughts of each of these are his own thoughts twisting and churning and wrenched alive and crawling from his conscious and unconscious mind. He writes because he must, because to fail as a writer means to fail as a man....
When I first began to write it was an act of desperation. It was a blind search, and at first every trail I followed led to the inside of a deep cave. I was searching with my conscious mind instead of my heart....
I lost all hope; I reached the point where I no longer cared what people thought about my writing. And that is when I began to write.... I scrapped all of my early efforts and started over again. I put my feelings, my heart, my life, my innermost thoughts on paper.
That, my friends, whether that art comes wrapped in lurid, waxy covers or swaddled in the imprimatur of prestigious publishers, is high art.
Following the Civil War, pawn shops were filled with brass instruments left over from military bands. Dirt cheap, they were taken up by black musicians, many of them ex-slaves, who on these instruments searched for and created a new music, a specifically American music, jazz. So too with writers such as Chester Himes, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford. They took up a form poorly suited perhaps to the measure of their vision and by sheer force of personality, by will and brute creativity, bent the form to their end, bringing into the world a music never heard before, a new and enduring art.
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