Charles Willeford finished writing The Shark Infested Custard in early 1975. It was rejected by everyone as too depressing to publish, with only the first section, narrated by ex cop Larry ‘Fuzz-O’ Dolman, put out as a short story, Strange, in the collection Everybody’s Metamorphosis. The novel was finally published in its entirety in 1993, five years after Willeford died of a heart attack.
I bought it because the title intrigued me, and it looked like a crime novel. There is plenty of criminal activity within, but it’s not exactly a typical crime novel. It’s not exactly a typical novel at all.
The Shark Infested Custard is set mainly in Miami, in the 1970s, and begins with a Tarantinoesque conversation between four guys. Discussing where might possibly be the hardest place to pick up a woman, Hank, the smoothest of the four, brags that he can pick up a date anywhere. The others take him at his word and they decide to lay a on a bet. The cash is on the table and, it seems, the story is set in motion.
Except that it isn’t.
Sure, the night doesn’t exactly go to plan, and two people have died before it ends, but then we switch viewpoints to Hank, and jump ahead an unspecified amount of time, and Hank never once mentions that night again. In fact, we have to read on right to the end of the novel before someone even alludes to the horrific events of that evening.
Our four male characters are, Larry Dolman, ex cop turned security guard; Hank Norton, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, who has studied psychology, and uses this knowledge when ‘dating’ women; Eddie Miller, an ex airforce pilot, and Don Luchessi, obsessively paternal over his unpleasant, overweight child, Marie.
We are first introduced to the four friends sitting around the pool at their apartment complex, drinking vodka martinis, and talking.
“Where, in Miami,” Hank said, “is the easiest place to pick up some strange? I’m not saying the best, I’m talking about the easiest place.”
“Big Daddy’s,” Eddie said.
“No,” Hank said, pursing his lips. “I admit you can pick up a woman in Big Daddy’s, but you don’t always score. Right? In fact, you might pick up a loser, lay out five bucks or so in drinks, and then find her missing when you come back from taking a piss.”
This was true enough; it had happened to me once, although I had never mentioned it to anyone.
“Think now,” Hank said. “Give me one surefire place to pick up a woman, where you’ll score, I’ll say, at least nine times out of ten.”
“Bullshit,” Don said. “Nobody score nine times out of ten, including you, Hank.”
These four men are unswervingly loyal to each other, the bonds of male friendship growing deeper than any other relationship they could ever have. They spend a great deal of time talking about sex, and how to get it, but also a significant amount their time is taken over with escaping from the women in their lives.
In the second part of the novel Larry joins a dating service after devising a way to deduct the dates on his income tax. Hank meets one of Larry’s dates, Jannaire, who Larry dislikes because of her body odour and unshaved armpits. This, though, turns Hank on, and he starts the chase, going through every psychological trick in his armoury to get her in bed. This section of the novel is probably the closest we get to the crime genre, as Jannair is not all she seems to be, but then we veer off again in Part Three to Don Luchessi, and his miserable, controlled existence with his wife, Clara.
The book reaches its own kind of resolution in the very last line, a chilling summation of the mental and emotional state of these four unpleasant, predatory men.
After the chill of that final line had faded away, I was pleased to have finished the book so that I didn’t have to spend any more time in the company of these men. But I was also pleased I had read it. I won’t usually spend time with a novel in which I can find no empathetic leading character. I have to like, or at least understand, somebody in the story to keep with it. But these four American guys, productive pillars of society in many superficial ways, were completely alien to me.
In the end the reason I stuck with it is due to Willeford’s genius as a storyteller. He picks apart the vacuous, rotten male heart of America, but never once pronounces judgement upon it.
He doesn’t have to. Once it is laid bare before our eyes we turn away, appalled, and disgusted.