Charles Willeford isn't a typical crime/noir novelist, starting out rather as a poet and eventually making his way into academia. Pick-Up was as likely intended to pay the bills as much as anything, but it packs a real punch, and across his career Willeford never did end up straying far from the genre. It's fair enough to call this second novel of his depressing, a relentlessly detailed account of the enervating realities and the gray life that the down and out are forced, by circumstances and by their own choices, to live inside of in America. Yet something about its compact, straightforward style bears its own momentum right to the very end, where a twist ending reconfigures one's perception of everything that has gone before. Harry Jordan is a talented artist and World War II veteran scraping along as an alcoholic short-order cook in whatever San Francisco diners he can catch a job in. He meets Helen Meredith, also an alcoholic and now estranged from her upper-middle-class origins because of it, drinking in a bar. They take up with one another, first setting up digs in Harry's room at a boardinghouse. Typical conversation: Harry: "I'm pretty much of a failure in life, Helen. Does it matter to you?" Helen: "No. Nothing matters to me." The connection is forged, though it's not easy to see at first how or why, let alone that it could possibly be anything lasting or good for either one, and sure enough, after a brief period of glowing hope during which Harry paints Helen's portrait and takes a job, attempting to go out on the straight and narrow, things soon spiral into mayhem and tragedy, marked by death, madness, and the mundane rituals of the court system. But the getting there is often oddly toned. Things happen that don't make sense: fights erupt too quickly in bars, Harry's situation seems impossibly precarious, psychologists ask the strangest questions, and Helen's family takes an instant and visceral dislike to him, in spite of the obvious improvements in Helen's life. But much of this is in retrospect. It's a short book, some 160 pages, that moves briskly and generally keeps one involved, in spite of the potentially off-putting squalor and the extremity of the circumstances. It's never repulsive for its own sake—it's no Barfly, put it that way. Willeford brings a familiar '50s sense of the melodramatic and even the existential with the couple's love contrasted against the overwhelming context of their constant (and refreshingly if disconcertingly conscious) desires to die, moving the action through bars, jail, mental institutions, and the like. Then the senses-altering payoff, which comes literally in the second-to-last sentence and which I (for one) never saw coming. It is also a revelation entirely of its time, the '50s, yet one so artfully done that I think it still resonates powerfully even now.