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Charles Willeford

Early, Charles Willeford looked at life and was dismayed: not by the misfortunes that made him an orphan and road-kid, but by what he comprehended through his quick intelligence – that while the world is filled with beautiful possibilities, all human endeavor is ultimately futile. His reaction, rather than suicide, was to consciously make himself into a person who despaired less; who forgave human stupidity and cruelty when he could, and examined it in his writing when he could not.

While Willeford knew that what he was doing as a writer was very important, he also knew simultaneously that it didn’t matter at all. The same went for all of life – an important, but meaningless, undertaking. His optimistic nihilism is something many may not discern in their reading of his work, but it is the seed from which it all grows.

His work inevitably shows that no one is truly trapped by the fact that their life is meaningless. One can take a good deal of pleasure from acts of creation. And if someone does live their life that way, they can make some sort of peace with themselves, accept a lot of human stupidity and the indifference of the universe, and still live a life that is not drenched in despair.

In literary terms, Willeford outshines his contemporaries because he has that rare component: a further explanation and answer to the existential angst (that dismal post-Industrial Revolution loss of personal context that continues to irritate us today) whose expression arose starting with Dostoevsky and Kafka. And rather than lamenting the discomfort of the misunderstood intellectual, he treats the average Joe - that entity who comprises a large part of the misunderstood intellectual, although it might pain one to admit it - the pettiness of his life, his frustrations, hatreds, and amorality - and how that can be transformed by creative acts.

In his introduction to The Way We Die Now, Donald Westlake writes that "Willeford's experience of his life led him to a certain attitude toward the world and his place in it, and this attitude, ironic without meanness, comic but deeply caring, informed every book he ever wrote, from his two volumes of autobiography through all the unnoticed novels."

If you overlook Charles Willeford's tolerance and compassion in your pursuit of his psychopaths, you're missing the whole point.


Maura McMillan

The Woman Chaser - by Rob Devor

Never-Before-Seen Visual Art by Willeford

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updated 1/01/01