|Vintage Pulp||Apr 22 2020|
If you put your fingers in the honey pot you're bound to make a mess.
We recently read an essay giving Charles Willeford credit as the man who helped originate the genre of South Florida fiction, a profitable niche occupied by John D. MacDonald, Randy Wayne White, and many other authors. Willeford's 1958 novel Honey Gal, originally titled The Black Mass of Brother Springer, is the story of a writer who gets himself appointed minister of a black church in fictional Jax, Florida. He proceeds to use the position to pile up collection money with the aim of stealing it and running away to New York City with a beautiful local girl, the honey gal of the title.
This book is tricky. It's foremost a drama about a man who wants nothing more than a life of leisure, and realizes he's a natural born con man with the gifts to make his dream come true. But the tale is also improbable enough to come across as a farce, funny in parts, though too racially vicious to be considered a comedy, and satirical in the sense that it paints religion as generally a scam. It's a lot to digest, but even so the book, while interesting, is not what we'd call compelling. Willeford has daring ideas, but those who suggest he deserves consideration as a literary author overlook the fact that his writing is not executed at the highest level.
So we think of Honey Gal not as an overlooked classic, but as a somewhat unusual swindle novel written from the point of view of a religious charlatan. In his efforts to gain trust and accumulate cash, the main character accidentally finds himself in a position where his authority as a man of the cloth could do actual good. But will he let his plans for the sweet life be derailed by the opportunity to help others? Will he cool his ardor for that honey gal? Will he have an epiphany on the road to perdition? Hah. You know better than that. Willeford is an entertaining writer, no doubt. Honey Gal is about as different as genre fiction gets.