Tuesday, July 06, 2010
35. The Black Mass of Brother Springer by Charles Willeford
I'm grateful to my friend John whose serendipitous discovery of my copy of this book and subsequent appreciation spurred me to re-read it. Back when Black Lizard was really doing its thing, I worked for a remainder book distribution company in Berkeley who had a connect with Barry Gifford. So we had almost the entire Black Lizard line in stock. During that period and after, which was my college years, I read a lot of the Black Lizard line, which opened my eyes to a very different world of the 50s than I had previously imagined.
I have a funny anecdote about Barry Gifford (who was the owner of Black Lizard press). Everybody at the warehouse hated him because supposedly he had come to drop-off a delivery of his books and somehow an altercation started, either with the boss or possibly the guys unloading the trucks. I suspect it was the former, as he wouldn't have been the first to have been royally pissed off by the management of that place. Anyways, the dint of it was that he supposedly started throwing boxes of his books at the workers who were unloading them into the warehouse. This was before my time there, but it was confirmed by a couple of guys. What was believable was that the Black Lizard books tended to be thin paperbacks and came in relatively small boxes (roughly a cubic foot or so) that you could throw at somebody.
True or not, Barry Gifford long redeemed himself in my eyes for bringing back to light so many great books and authors (I'm pretty sure Black Lizard deserves the credit for rightfully lifting Jim Thompson's literary reputation) and for one of my all-time favourite movie books "The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other unforgettable films" (pick it up if you ever find it).
So I had read The Black Mass of Brother Springer at least over 10, possibly 15 years ago and remembered it fondly, but had very little memory of anything that actually happened. It's a thin book and starts quickly. I was reminded how pleasurable it is to read these thin, quick-moving and intelligent books. In this story, Sam Springer is an accountant who has an itch to write. He succeeds in getting a book published, which allows him just enough money to quit his job, move to Florida and start writing full time. Unfortunately, he finds he isn't able to write with any productivity or financial success and soon his money starts to run out. Furthermore, his wife is not too happy in Florida (having left all her family and friends in Columbus). Quite early on in the book, he makes a series of snap decisions that culminate in him being the new minister of a small black church in western Florida.
I won't go too much more into the details of the narrative. More interesting is the protagonist himself. He starts out as an accountant with an itch for more but his behaviour is almost that of a seasoned con. He lies with ease, boldly manipulates complex social and political situations either for his own ends or just to stir shit up, he steals, he gets effectively physical when necessary and generally behaves like a mostly rational sociopath. Yet the dialogue in his head is almost as a passive observer to his own behaviour (and he explicitly talks about the power of his own voice and how it often seems to act of its own accord). It's a very strange juxtaposition, and one that was not uncommon to this generation of noir writers (Thompson, Goodis and a few others I'll need to re-read now). It also left me slightly removed from the narrative when I first read it. It just didn't seem believable to me. It still doesn't seem entirely believable to me. The protagonist is just too cold-blooded, too unafraid of the consequences of his actions (and they are serious). I can't tell if Willeford wants us to think he is a sociopath or if this is some kind of wish fulfillment fantasy. At the latter level, it really is quite effective. It's kind of an adventure book for the wannabe writer who would really wish to have the guts to live the kind of life he writes about.
What is funny is that the whole motivation for Springer to do everything he does is so that he can continue to write. But he doesn't write at all. When he does have the time to write, he can't get anything written because he has nothing to write about. When he does start living, he's too busy living to have any time to write. And the climax of the story is when his one published novel is basically revealed to be empty of any substance by an oracle-type character.
So though I still find a slight distance with the protagonist that puts the book one step from true immersion for me, at my advanced age, I really appreciate it much more. It's a rich, energetic book with a sympathetic but critical eye on humanity and a gentle, wry humour throughout. Definitely check this book out.