BEYOND THE VOID

11.11.15 6:00 AM ET

The Train-Hopping, Nazi-Fighting Literary Hero You’ve Never Heard Of

He wrote books of poetry, won a chestful of medals, helped inspire Pulp Fiction—and loved a good bathroom joke. Meet First Sergeant Charles Willeford.

Charles Willeford, author of novels like Pickup, High Priest of California, and Miami Blues, was one of the most unusual war heros America ever produced. Only a few years after fighting in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, he published his first book, a collection of poems. Yet, to point out that he was writing poetry in the Army doesn’t do justice to just how rare a specimen he was, a war hero who made his reputation as an author without writing about war.

There’s a memorable shot of Willeford in his posthumously published collection, Writing and Other Bloodsports, a book that contains his most scholarly work, including a version of his master’s thesis, “New Forms of Ugly: The Immobilized Hero in Modern Fiction.” The author, 52 and wearing every year on his face, sports a flashy striped shirt and Campbell’s Soup print necktie. You can’t see much of his mouth beneath the combed mustache and busted boxer’s nose, but you can just make out a grin in the eyes. He looks like someone who’d seen enough that he might have given up, but developed a sense of humor instead. There’s a hint in that photo of all the lives that led up to it—the orphan who hopped freight trains during the Depression, the career soldier, scathing critic of American life, war hero, boxer, literature professor, professional disappointment, committed existentialist concealed as a pulp writer, and late-life minor literary sensation. At one time or another, Willeford played half the deck of familiar American archetypes but was too exquisitely weird to ever fully cash in on any of them.

The Miami journalist John Keasler, a friend of Willeford’s, joked that his backstory couldn’t be true. There was a record of Willeford’s existence in his published work, military file, and the alimony owed to several wives, and the fact that Keasler knew him personally, but that was nothing compared to the sheer improbability of anyone having lived that life. “Who ever heard of a career soldier, a Regular Army first sergeant in the Infantry at that, publishing books of poetry with titles like Proletarian Laughter?” Keasler asked.

No one. The line of American poetry has not traditionally flowed through the Infantry First Sergeant. So, without precedent, and out of necessity, Willeford formed his own tradition.

He could have been a professional hardass in print but had no desire. He studied Joyce and Kafka along with Himes, Hammett, and Chandler. And anyway, he wanted to be funny. Instead of a war memoir he wrote things like A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, which opens opposite an epigram from Ezra Pound with these lines:

“In hospital language a patient does not urinate, micturate, pee, piss, or take a leak. He voids. Or, as in my case, he is unable to void.”

This is trademark Willeford. Broken down, stoic, and comic where it hurts. And that’s before he gets to describing the procedure on his asshole.

These days, Willeford is best remembered for the South Florida noir series that began with the novel Miami Blues (later made into an excellent Alec Baldwin film) and for being name-checked by Quentin Tarantino as an inspiration for Pulp Fiction. Those crime novels helped pay his bills but the Tarantino imprimatur never elevated him, as it ought to have, from hip obscurity to wider recognition.

The handful moved by his name are collectors of crime and hardboiled writing who appreciate his contributions to the genre and the aficionados of oddball genius who like him for the ways his work defied and subverted genre.

He belongs to a certain school of American writers, truants really, that the novelist Jonathan Lethem called “these exiles within their own culture.” Writers like the hobo laureate Jack Black, science fiction’s Philip K. Dick, and newspaperman-turned-novelist Charles Portis were outsiders, not in the high-art sense of a cultivated avant garde, but in the practical sense—they had chops and insights but no gate into the literary club and no intention of doing a soft shoe to get in.

And there’s the problem with Willeford. A pulp modernist with a Silver Star medal and a military pension, he ought to be remembered by both literary critics and war buffs, but was too weird a specimen to belong to any canon.

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The big names in the American war writing pantheon, your Cranes, Mailers, Hemingways, O’Briens, saw combat and had a lot to say about it in their work. Willeford’s trick, and his work offered plenty of elegant sleights of hand, was to be a war hero who established himself as one of the best American writers of the last hundred years while hardly ever writing about his war.

Why wouldn’t a decorated career soldier who fought in the Battle of the Bulge draw on those experiences to make his name as a writer? For one, he had other things to write about. At 16, when he lied about his age to enlist in the Army, he’d already lived his way through prime material.

The Willeford family was all but gone before Charles was 10. He was 2 when his father died of tuberculosis and his mother took him out of Arkansas to live with her family in California. At 8, the tuberculosis took his mother. He was left with his grandmother Mattie. In a few years the family went from well-to-do to fallen poor. Mattie sent Willeford to a boarding school for the children of working parents with the promise that she would take him out at 10, when he could watch after himself. She kept her word and earned the dedication in his first published book.

For Mattie
This book, when so much more is due

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At 13, after his grandmother Mattie lost her job selling hats on commission, Willeford left home. He didn’t want to be a burden and his “position became untenable,” he later wrote in I Was Looking for a Street, the first part of his autobiography. It was 1932, the lowest point in the Great Depression, and Willeford had company riding the rails. “I wasn’t alone. There were thousands of boys my age riding freight trains to nowhere. But no one can ever tell me I didn’t have a happy childhood.”

At 16, looking for a way off the street, Willeford found the Army. He joined the California National Guard by lying about his age, then a few months later joined the regular Army and was sent to the Philippines. There were a series of subsequent discharges and re-enlistments but his military career took him through the war years, and transfers between service branches. It lasted until 1956, when he retired from the Air Force with a full pension.

In American letters it’s usually draftees writing chronicles of war. The career soldier, if they write professionally, pens military histories or memoir. For officers, and it’s mostly officers, there is the added genre of tactical or strategic analysis. The type of personality that fits inside a uniform for 20 years, it’s understood, is not cut from the same cloth as the literary type. A writer has to be subject to passions and unfettered in their creative pursuits. A soldier has to wake up at 4 a.m. and go march around before cleaning the barracks and biting their tongue before the dumb face of authority.

Willeford just could not play to type. He wasn’t an officer with the requisite college degree but a sergeant. And not just a sergeant but an Infantry First Sergeant, a grunt’s grunt, the “top kick,” as the position was called in Willeford’s day. As the senior non-commissioned officer in the company, the first sergeant is the saltiest character of all. He’s there to watch officers come and go in processions of command while knowing that the company actually belongs to him. In the infantry, where grunts pride themselves on toughness and a stomach for misery and daily bullshit, the first sergeant is expected to be the most professional, the most jaded, and the least forgiving. “Tougher than woodpecker lips” is what you call a first sergeant well suited to their job.

His first book, the collection of poems Proletarian Laughter, was published while Willeford was still serving as a first sergeant in the infantry. It was put out as an Alicat Chapbook by the cult publisher that also ran work by one of Willeford’s heroes, Henry Miller. The book was an obscure item even when he had a bit of fame, and the only thing he ever wrote that directly addressed his experiences in the war. It’s an awkwardly sentimental and coldly vicious little book of poems interspersed with short prose pieces called schematics that collect stories of brutality told by soldiers warming themselves around Jeep radiators, popping in and out of tank hatches, or remembering, years later, the stories from that European winter. The book, far from Willeford’s best, has been largely forgotten. For most readers, it was likely hard to hear the laughter in it.

That slim volume of poems is the only combat writing Willeford ever published. The second part of his memoir, Something About a Soldier, is only something. It’s a great piece of writing that’s full of vivid storytelling, but it keeps itself to his early years in the Army before the war.

By Willeford’s own account he didn’t write about war because other authors, like Mailer and James Jones, had already done it better. Maybe. But Willeford didn’t always like to play it straight, either in his art or when he was forced to explain himself. Even Willeford fans who have clamored for more straightforward answers to the meaning behind his life and work are missing the point, says Don Herron, author of the authoritative biography, Willeford. “[They] don’t understand. If he didn’t want to tell you something he didn’t tell you and if he thought he could kid you he was just all over you, forever; it could go on for months.”

It’s hard to imagine, if war had been the story Willeford wanted to tell, that he didn’t think he had anything to add. I think that Willeford just didn’t want to write about war. It was something he didn’t want to tell you. He had different game to hunt. He wanted his characters to live closer to the grain of daily life, and to locate any failure and heroism, such as there was, as far as he could get it from the warp of grandeur. 

As an author, it took Willeford another decade to find his voice after getting his start as the poetry-writing top kick. But, by his own account, the military afforded him plenty of time to read and practice his craft.

If it offered nothing else, the military gave the author a chance to hone his comedic sensibility. “When I was an Infantry First Sergeant,” Willeford told an interviewer, “I wrote a review of Ezra Pound’s poetry for the Fort Benning Infantry journal. The troops showed no overt reaction.”

(The comic style matured in Writing and Other Bloodsports, which was published with this note, reportedly penned for an ex-wife: “Dedication Withdrawn.”) 

The military also gave him his first interaction with critics. “Once a gunnery sergeant of mine said he didn’t understand my poetry. I asked if he understood the gunnery rules. He said, well, not exactly—that he had to memorize them. I had him memorize the poetry. It didn’t help.”

Willeford’s first great work, The Woman Chaser, was published in 1960 after he had left the service. It’s a novel structured as a screenplay about a used car salesman, Richard Hudson, who shares an Oedipal dance with his mother, deflowers his stepsister, and decides to write a film. Hudson is both an average middle-class climber and a violent narcissist gripped by a spasm of artistic vision for which he’s willing to sacrifice everything. It’s a beautifully strange book and shows Willeford, for the first time, in full control of his powers as a writer.

As a critique of American strivers and crass materialism, The Woman Chaser has similarities with the social realist novels produced by some of Willeford’s contemporaries. But it’s weirder than anything a committed Marxist could have written at the time, closer in its critique to Miller’s anti-bourgeois fear of the air-conditioned nightmare, and more concerned with psychology and cultural rot than the predations of capitalism. It is also one of his only books to feature a veteran, a retired master sergeant who joins the protagonist’s sales force. There is a clear parallel between the veteran character, an enlisted man who retires with the same pay grade that Willeford held when he left the military, and the author’s own experience. The character, Master Sergeant William Conan Harris, isn’t Willeford. Harris is depicted, initially at least, as a thoroughly institutionalized man with no artistic ambition. But Harris is also someone Willeford knew especially well, perhaps as a part of himself. That closeness to Willeford’s own background is more compelling because it doesn’t spare Harris from coming in for special abuse from Hudson, the book’s protagonist.

In this early scene the recently retired Master Sergeant Bill Harris is being interviewed by Hudson for a position at Honest Hal’s car lot.

I gave Bill a little test. After digging into my pocket for some change, I tossed some coins on the desk. “How about getting us a couple of cokes out of the machine, Bill?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Hudson,” he replied. He used his own dimes, ignoring my change on the desk. After working the machine, he handed me an open bottle before he sat down with his own.

And with that servile display he gets the job. The retired master sergeant is hanging on to his code of loyalty, which earned him a pension after years of doing other people’s work. In the hardboiled ethos of the book, his loyalty marks him as a sap, destined to be exploited by the more cunning and mercenary Hudson character. After their inevitable falling out, Hudson reflects, “I felt sorry for Bill Harris, and yet, I was happy for him in a way. He had discovered that loyalty was not enough. Loyalty may be fine for the army, but it has no place in the outside world.”

You can easily read that as scorn for Harris, as contempt for the military company man who can’t get by on his own, or even as a bit of self-flagellation on Willeford’s part. But over the course of decades in writing full of practical philosophy Willeford showed sympathy for both Hudson’s knowing cynicism and Harris’s faith in the need for order. Reviewing a biography of Dashiell Hammett, Willeford addressed that tenuous balance: “Existentialism is a practical philosophy for urban males to follow;” he declared, “and if a man develops a professional attitude towards his work, he will probably succeed where others fail.” The universe is dumb chaos so you better quit looking to be saved and make your own meaning but, also, it’s good to wake up early and work hard. Take Willeford’s secret to writing a novel as recounted in Marshall Jon Fisher’s profile of the author, “The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction.”

“Never allow yourself to take a leak in the morning until you’ve written a page. That way you’re guaranteed a page a day, and at the end of a year you have a novel.”

A novel, Willeford wrote, “is a case study of the author.” His work had plenty to draw on and said a lot about the passions of his own life: in the bottom-of-the-bottle realism of Pickup, with its twist ending; The Burnt Orange Heresy and its sendup of art world frauds and forgeries; Cockfighter, wherein the hero takes a vow of silence; and in his two fantastic volumes of autobiography, one devoted to his time in the military. In all of his writing there was an account of his own experiences and there is something, too, in the blank spaces that he left.

This much is public record, contained in Willeford’s citation on the Arlington National Memorial Website, with a picture of the military marker where he is interred:

In the winter of 1944-45 Willeford fought in the Battle of the Bulge as a tank commander. He was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest combat award for valor, for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy” under the order of the 10th Armored Division headquarters. He also earned the Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, showing he had been wounded in battle more than once.

In all of his best work, Willeford showed himself to be a master raconteur. From his early childhood he held on to stories that would fill his autobiography, told with spare but vivid detail. He’d thought about it and knew what he wanted to say. The war was a chapter he chose to keep silent.

There are two kinds of writers in America—the ones who want to write a Great American Novel, and the ones who don’t know how to speak for that many people at once and only want to write something that’s remorselessly funny and true. And then there’s Charles Willeford.