Excursion into 1950s’ Nihilism

Pick-Up (1955)

By Charles Willeford

Nihilism threads through most noir novels. It’s not often, though, when it dominates the plot and characters completely, as it does in Charles Willeford’s terrifically pulpy, frequently salacious, and thoroughly (in a good way) depressing tale of a death wish thwarted.

It’s San Francisco in the mid-Fifties, but this is the Frisco where the sun rarely shines and fog hangs thick and wet over cold streets. Harry Jordan trained as a fine arts painter. He was good at it. But soon enough, he judged himself not quite good enough for the art big time, and this was after he abandoned his wife and baby son to paint. He odd jobs in San Francisco as a fry cook. One night, in walks a dame like none he’s ever laid eyes on, Helen Meredith. Remember the year when you read Willeford’s description, because she sounds like a cross between a Goth and a punker. They immediately fall together as they share a powerful bond: they are admittedly and happily alcoholics.

The two become a pair and live in Harry’s rented room. They drink constantly, literally into oblivion. Harry can’t hold a job and cater to Helen’s neediness, possessiveness, and overwhelming addiction that supersedes his own. Life no longer matters to each. They decide to commit suicide together. They make the attempt and they fail. They check themselves into a psychiatric hospital, but they are out in a blink, no better off. Now they are dirt broke. Helen begins going out on her own to pick up men for a drink. Meanwhile, she gets sicker and sicker; he gets more depressed. Suicide seems the sensible solution once again. It partially succeeds.

And it devastates Harry, who really, truly loves Helen. He ends up in jail, where he pleads guilty to murder and urges the police and prosecutor to speed things along so he can get into the gas chamber. But, you know, when life hasn’t gone your way ever, why expect it to drift in your favor now? Harry lands back in the hospital consumed by fear that they will find him insane, when he declares himself perfectly normal, and deprive him of what he desires, death. Then events occur that startle Harry and jolt us readers, and the book ends on a totally unexpected reveal—which means you should avoid at all costs jumping ahead.

How to make sense of all this? you might wonder. Well, remember the era, the Fifties. We usually picture these as halcyon days of rising prosperity, growing suburban life, idyllic families, bright colors; in short, happy days. We typically don’t think about marginalized people, about the isolation of suburban life, of cities slowly abandoned, of crime, and problems with substance abuse as ways to cope with the big issue of the day: strictly enforced conformity. If a phrase can characterize an era, the Age of Conformity seems to best capture the spirit, or rather dispirit of the Fifties. In short, perfect soil for the blooming of existential and atheistic nihilism seeded in preceding decades. And there you have Harry Jordan. w/c

   

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