Friday, July 3, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: “Pick-Up”

Describing Charles Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, even in a positive review – which this is – could cause readers to treat the book like a hot barbeque coal: They would not touch it.

That would be a shame because Pick-Up is a noirish page turner.

Hard drinking Harry, a once aspiring artist, now lives hand-to-mouth, taking part-time jobs as a fry cook or a bartender. One day, he picks up Helen, a raging alcoholic, who is roaming the slums of San Francisco after running from her home in a comfortable California town where she was dominated by her mother.

Harry takes her to his room in a cheap boarding house and there they drink, day in and day out. 

While boozing their lives away, Helen persuades Harry to paint her in the nude. He does, but the picture only stirs up bad memories of earlier struggles and defeats.

When their money runs out, Harry gets a job. While he is away, Helen goes out looking for anyone who will buy her a drink. He finds her in a bar accepting drinks from a bunch of soldiers and allowing them to grope her. Harry manages to get her away from the men and back to the boarding house.

Things worsen and their situation becomes almost absurdly awful. There are suicide attempts and brief stays in a mental ward, and run-ins with Helen’s mother.

In the hands of another writer, this could be a frustrating book. But Willeford creates a compelling, suspenseful, and nightmarish tale with twists and turns so unexpected they seem like scenes from a fever dream.

Pick-Up was reprinted in 1990 by Black Lizard, and later included in the anthology, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, published by the Library of America in 1997. 


  1. I tried it, got about 40 or 50 pages, but couldn't finish it, it was just too depressing.

  2. Can't beat a bit of Willeford, though on balance I do prefer his Hoke Moseley's.