Friday, May 23, 2014

FFB: The Burnt Orange Heresy - Charles Willeford

I love nothing more than a good skewering of the intelligentsia. Charles Willeford has written one of best in his often irreverent depiction of the 1970s art world as reported by James Figueras, an art critic of immense ego and cynical worldview who serves as narrator of The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971). More satire than crime novel yet not without a generous smattering of violent crimes and brutal explosive violence The Burnt Orange Heresy offers Willeford a chance to show off his knowledge of the art world while simultaneously creating one of the most compellingly realistic fictional artists of all time.

Willeford is so cunning in how he tells his tale of modern art and the arcane world of reclusive eccentric painters that he completely took me in. He fooled this gullible reader. While reading the lengthy lecture Figueras gives his girlfriend Berenice about the origins of Nihilistic Surrealism I began taking notes on all the styles and painters mentioned. Utterly foreign to me were the names of Willi Büttner and his Scatölögieschul, Belgian brothers Hans & Hal Grimm nor had I ever heard of Nihilistic Surrealism. I dutifully headed to that miracle we know as Google to scour the internet for signs of life among these names and terms. Results? 100% nothing. Turns out all of them sprang from the imagination of the writer. Willeford was so convincing in his presentation of these artists and their various schools of painting I believed they actually existed. The lecture Figueras gives -- peppered with references to well known artists like Miró, Picasso, De Chirico and Man Ray -- is so eruditely told I just accepted all of it as truthful. Part of the con begins before the reader even starts the book. Willeford dedicates the book to Jacques Debierue and gives his birth and death dates followed by a Latin memorial phrase. Of course Debierue is as fictional as the entire novel, but for a brief moment I was completely taken in thinking all of the painters and artists mentioned were real.

US 1st edition (Crown, 1971)
The biographical sketch in the rear of my Black Lizard edition mentions that Willeford studied art in Paris and Peru and was at one time a painter in his life. The Burnt Orange Heresy is both a love letter to and a diatribe against a con artist's world of contemporary art. Figueras is the perfect personality to become a con artist. When he is offered a rare opportunity to interview the reclusive genius painter Debierue he jumps at the chance. Never mind that in order to gain access to the artist, his home and studio he must also steal one painting and bring it back to the collector who knows where the artist lives. There is no moral dilemma for Figueras. If he can be the first person to interview Debierue and also be the first to view his new set of paintings and artwork he can revive his dying career as art critic, become a celebrity himself. It's the chance of a lifetime. Art theft? A mere stumbling block to a greater vainglorious end.

But there is a one huge surprise in store for Figueras when he finally manages to penetrate the hallowed studio housing Debierue's collection of art. And his discovery of Debierue's secret leads him into more crime and savage violence. The Burnt Orange Heresy makes for some exciting reading both as an excellent example of noir in the art world and a insightful satire of the creation and selling of fine art as the ultimate con game.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo card, space S1 - "Book with a Color in the Title" 

10 comments:

  1. I have yet to read anythign by Willeford - I have "Cockfighter" and "The Shark Infested Custard" on the shelf but this sounds even better - thanks as always chum, off to find this one now! I love the movie version of "Miami Blues' but have no idea how faithful it was.

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    1. I enjoyed the movie Miami Blues mostly for its depiction of a crime couple trying their best to be a happy imitation of Ralph and Alice Kramden. Just so very odd. I highly recommend PICK-UP which I read ages ago. I adapted a chunk of that book for a stage production I did about sex scenes in fiction. PICK-UP has one of the most remarkable final sentences in all of cirme fiction. Reading the last sentence changes most reader's assessment of the main character.

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  2. I love art mysteries and though this sounds more violent than I would like, I'll keep an eye out, John. Thanks for the intro. You are always such a font of book information. :) It's really thanks to you and Les over at Classic Mysteries that I've become a Vintage Book Addict. I just wish my I had a second hand bookstore nearby. Heaven.

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    1. There's really only one violent scene at the very end, Yvette. Slightly foreshadowed in the narrative but all the same eyebrow raising in its savagery. The bulk of the book is all about the art world and Willeford's obvious critical view of what was happening in the galleries circa late 60s-early 70s.

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  3. I did not know that Willeford wrote anything like this. I will definitely track down a copy. Thanks, John.

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  4. Another book to add to the want list, I rapidly running out of space. I'm not familiar with Willeford's work where is the best place to start?

    Wayne.

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    1. As I said above PICK-UP is one of his earliest and most impressive books.

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  5. This was the first book by Willeford I read, and the last. I didn't feel so much tricked as fooled, in the literal meaning, and the plot didn't make me swoon either. My brief description of the book was "somewhat interesting". I think you saw more in it than I.

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    1. I didn't have to work to find I wrote about in the book. It's all there. I also happen to think that the world of modern art is a big farce and so it was easier for me see not only Figueras' outrageous plan as a con artist's means to a selfish reward, but also that Willeford presents Debierue as a con artist. I think there is the possibility that Debierue never created a single piece of art after the day he decided to dupe the public with that picture frame placed around a crack in a wall. There are clues in the narrative that his legend as a great artist was nothing more than the creation of the critics' imaginations run wild.

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