Saturday, October 30, 2010

Boil those yeggs hard

Manning is fighting for his life. He and a killer with a gun are going at it, street fighting on the deck of a boat, in a desperate struggle to kill the other. They're in the Gulf of Mexico on the Ballerina, a 37-foot sailboat. They both fall overboard, sinking into the water, still fighting. Manning breaks free and goes to the surface, thinking his enemy, Barclay, has drowned. He watches helplessly as The Ballerina drifts away from him.

Then, as described by Charles Williams in his 1955 book, Gulf Coast Girl, Manning tells his story:
I had forgotten about Barclay.

He came to the surface of the sea forty yards away. He was drowning--drowning in a waterlogged tweed jacket with a gun in his hand as if he would no more have parted with either of them than he would have condescended to notice the existence of the Gulf of Mexico when he was busy trying to kill me. I forgot even to be afraid, watching him. It was fantastic.

He would go under. The gun would reappear first, held above his head, and then his face; the broken jaw agape and water running out of his mouth. He would calmly tilt the gun barrel down to let the water run out so it wouldn't explode when he fired, and then he'd shoot. His aim was wild because of his exertions to keep himself afloat long enough to fire. The bullet would ricochet off a swell and go screaming into the blue emptiness behind me, and the ejected shell would whistle into the water on his right. He would go under. And then fight his way back to the surface to do it all over again. There was something utterly magnificent about it, and I didn't hate him any more. I forgot I was the one he was shooting at.

He shot three more times. The fourth time he didn't quite make it. The gun came up out of the water and then sank back and there was an explosion just under the surface as he pulled the trigger while it was submerged. He never came up again.

I was alone now. I looked around. The Ballerina was far out on the horizon, still going away.
Williams had a way with visual writing. The scene reads like a movie scenario. It's fitting, because for a time he also wrote screenplays.

Charles Williams wrote hard-boiled novels. Gulf Coast Girl, the re-named paperback edition, called Scorpion Reef in its hardcover appearance, contains all of the noir elements of the genre. It has a tough hero, it has a beautiful woman with a secret and a dead husband. It has a couple of killers who are looking for a plane downed in the Gulf, carrying $750,000 worth of diamonds. It doesn't need a lot of characters, because the plot is kept simple. It's the characters we care about.

Several American writers of the hard-boiled/noir school are idolized in Europe, like Williams now barely known in the U.S. where they wrote and published. The novels are symbolic of an American culture that exists below the surface, and Americans, like lone characters from the Wild West, who favor direct action. It's a shame a novel like Gulf Coast Girl is not in print today. Very few of Williams' works are still in print and available in the U.S.

There's a Wikipedia article on Williams, biography and bibliography. According to the article, Williams was born in 1909, and died a suicide in 1975.


Kirk Jusko said...

Count me as one who had never heard of Charles Williams, and was surprised there was so much about him on Wiki-pedia (maybe I shouldn't have been; they seem to rescue a lot of former notables from obscurity.) I like the idea of somebody trying to kill another when he really should be trying to save his own selve from drowning, and the intended victim finding this so fascinating, he doesn't even try to flee. I'm going to have to seek this writer out.

El Postino said...

I thought the scene was so cinematic. Speaking for me, that's not what I'd be doing if I fell overboard in a struggle and was still being attacked.

Williams was a very popular writer of paperback originals, but mostly out of print now, and I wonder why.