In 1955, Charles Willeford (1919-1988) was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in California and later Newfoundland. That was the year that his second published novel, “Pick-Up,” was published as a paperback original from Beacon Books. Since then, the novel has been reprinted several times, so finding an affordable used copy should be a cinch. Moreover, it’s also currently available as a $6 eBook.
Narrator Harry Jordan is a short order cook in a San Francisco diner working a quiet night shift when Helen Meredith arrives to have a cup of coffee at the counter. She’s very pretty and very drunk. Harry’s also a prolific boozer, so they hit a bar together after work. Helen has just arrived in town, and it’s clear that being shitfaced isn’t a rare thing for the girl.
Harry and Helen fall madly in love, and the reader is treated to a dysfunctional romance between two hard-core alcoholics with room-temperature IQs. It’s a lot like a David Goodis novel, but Goodis always thrusts his hard-luck losers into crime-fiction dilemmas fairly early in the novel. Willeford appears to be taking his time getting to the point until it finally occurs to the reader that there is no goal here other than bearing witness to the protagonists’ descent.
“Pick-Up” isn’t a much crime novel, and other than a couple bar fights, there’s not much action. Technically, there’s a killing but not the kind we normally see in paperbacks from this era. As expected, it’s rather well-told, but the book is basically just a prose blues song about two suicidal drunks in a doomed romance.
The final line of the book has a plot twist of sorts that probably knocked readers on their asses in 1955, but isn’t nearly as shocking 65 years later. In any case, I found “Pick-Up” to be a well-written slog that doesn’t hold up to brilliant Willeford works such as “The Woman Chaser” or “Wild Wives.” Your time is better spent elsewhere.
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