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New Hope for the Dead : THE SHARK-INFESTED CUSTARD, By Charles Willeford (Underwood-Miller, 708 Westover Drive, Lancaster, Pa. 17601, (717) 285-2255: $20.95; 263 pp.)

July 18, 1993|John Schulian | Schulian is a television writer and producer

Scoff though you may, it is strictly for intellectual purposes that I am thinking of a magazine article in which Sharon Stone called herself "a sex babe." Amen to that, brother, but I wish the redoubtable Ms. Stone had gone on to explain whether she has created categories for the rest of humanity. The category I am interested in at the moment could be called sex dolt.

For no other description will do justice to any of the four ladies' men Charles Willeford created to be devoured in "The Shark-Infested Custard," his blackly comic, posthumously published disemboweling of the sexual revolution. Willeford's feckless chippy chasers have apparently never heard the old Miami riddle that inspired the title: "What is very sweet, bright yellow and extremely dangerous?" There is, you see, no time for contemplating metaphors when they are busy perfecting hedonism in a singles-only apartment house--working as little as possible so they can hang out, drink to excess and seduce nurses, teachers and stewardesses who are as insipid as they are.

In the pre-AIDS blissfulness of the early 1970s, these four swordsmen decide that a VD clinic is the best place to meet a like-minded member of the opposite sex. "They've all been treated recently, so they know there's no danger of catching anything," says Hank, the pharmaceutical salesman who is the quartet's champion bedbug. And the toughest place to pick up a little action, they agree, is at a drive-in movie. A guy may show up at one alone, but a woman? Never. Naturally, the hormone-fueled Hank bets that he can beat the curse of the drive-in.

So in he goes at 7:41 p.m.--wearing a magenta suit, no less--and out he comes 31 minutes later with a drugged-up girl who looks as though she wandered away from her Brownie troop. She turns out to be 14. "A girl's a girl," Hank says, "and I had enough trouble snagging this one." His intentions are casually callous.

And then they are blown away when the girl falls over dead.

It is a moment at once horrifying, perverse and hilarious. Now these happy-hour lotharios must think of something besides dancing the horizontal bop. They must figure out what to do with the girl's body and how to handle the pusher she worked for. It matters not that one of them is an ex-cop nicknamed Fuzz-O who might logically be expected to go to the law. Better for all of them, they decide, to follow the path of convenience and amorality--even when it leads to murder. Their souls are deadened in the process, but you get the idea that they weren't much in the soul department to start with.

Willeford liked his characters that way because they stirred his sense of the ridiculous and advanced his theory that contemporary society had turned into a joke it was too self-absorbed to understand. At his best, he wrote like James M. Cain with a funny bone, and he did it often enough to join the rare breed that can turn pulp fiction into literature. By his death in 1988, Willeford was the established master of portraying South Florida decadence, the big daddy in whose footsteps Carl Hiassen, James W. Hall and a host of lesser lights have followed. Is it any wonder, then, that a year or so earlier, he seemed a perfect candidate to write an episode of "Miami Vice"?

This was during my first full-time TV gig--I was one of the show's seemingly endless parade of story editors--when my partners in crime and I were groping for a way to give "Vice" a jolt of adrenaline as it lurched toward its fourth season. Everything seemed to have been used already--babes, pastels, rock 'n' roll, white loafers without socks, black Testa Rossas and Frank Zappa as an actor. Then inspiration struck: We would go in a new direction with writers of the hard-boiled, hardcover variety. Like James Crumley. Yeah, and Roger L. Simon. And, of course, Charles Willeford.

We struck out with all of them, but Willeford managed to leave us laughing. He proposed an episode in which Don Johnson's character--Sonny Crockett, an undercover cop in every way the censors would allow--came out of the closet. Don Johnson wasn't big on sucker punches, and Willeford was savvy enough to know it. But worry about a star's boundless ego and tender sensibilities? Hell, no. Charles Willeford had better things to do.

He specialized in the outrageous. The first time I picked up one of his books, "Miami Blues," its opening words hit me like a surprise party: "Frederick J. Frenger Jr., a blithe psychopath from California . ." A blithe psychopath? I was hooked.

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