Charles Willeford’s Wild and Crazy Life

05/26/2010 3:10 AM |

I Was Looking For a Street
By Charles Willeford

PictureBox begins a series of reprints from the Charles Willeford corpus—patchily in print after his late-80s renaissance—with I Was Looking For a Street, retrofitted with demographic-outreach Jonathan Lethem blurb and artsy layout.

Street was written in ill health and published in 1988, after Willeford’s death. He had only just earned real money and niche fame after a career largely spent in pulp fiction and remaindered purgatory. Street recounts the years leading to Willeford’s first autobiographical work, 1986’s Something About a Soldier, which picked up where Street leaves off, after the 16-year-old Willeford lied his way into the military, where he would log 20 years of service (“Pulp was more of a social marker than a thematic or generic grouping”offers Luc Sante’s new introduction, discussing Willeford’s extra-literary career).

Street is divided into two sections. The first is Willeford’s memories of streetcar-era L.A. on the cusp of the Depression, and a very loving portrait of the Southern-bred grandmother, Mattie, who raised him alone before he ran away to lighten the family burden. In the book’s second and rather longer part, Willeford describes his experiences as one of “thousands of boys my age riding freight trains to nowhere,”coasting between El Paso, Yuma, and Agua Prieta, Mexico.

Those unfamiliar with Willeford’s voice will discover the addictive pleasure of his drily comic straightforwardness, betraying no “shocking”relish when relating the obscene facts of life (the coveted jobs at McKinley Industrial School that allowed cow-fucking; the melancholy world of hobo camp S&M). As always, Willeford remains a repository of self-sufficient how-to and sundry (sometimes dubious) information. In his thumbnail sketches of road life, we learn why the brim on a cowboy hat is curled, a recipe for mulligan stew, and the right and wrong way to jump a train. These details, accumulated, fill out a grand mosaic of the Southwest in the 30s every bit as vivid as the 80s Miami of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels.