Saturday, October 15, 2011

Getting Off by Lawrence Block

Some books need more explanation than others. When a beloved author comes out with the seventeenth novel in a series he's been writing for three decades -- like Lawrence Block's recent A Drop of the Hard Stuff, for example [1] -- everyone is more than clear on the concept. But when the author's next novel is credited as "Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson," and the book itself is a lurid, sexy thriller, written in an early-paperback throwback style, then a reader could easily become puzzled as to what Getting Off is and how it came to be.

Block has written seven previous novels as Emerson, from the erotica of Threesome to the "sensitive lesbian fiction" of Enough of Sorrow and what the author's bio describes as a work of "mainstream contemporary fiction," A Week as Andrea Benstock. But the most recent of those Emerson books -- Andrea Benstock -- was published in 1973, without a whisper of Block's name attached to it, like the six earlier Emerson books. Since then, Block's early pseudonyms -- Emerson, Paul Kavanagh, Andrew Shaw, Sheldon Lord -- have become more widely known, and those pseudonymous books have either become much more expensive as old battered paperbacks or have been reprinted in new, fancier editions with Block's name attached. And most of those old pseudonymous books were so for a reason -- the Paul Kavanaghs are the major exception -- since they were quick, unsophisticated genre entertainments, written by a young man eager to make a living and aimed at the lower ranks of a paperback industry that was pretty downmarket to begin with.

Getting Off, on the other hand, fully appears to be a new novel in a similar style. There's no introduction or other explanatory notes -- it's a paperback-y thriller from Hard Case Crime, so those would be entirely out of place here -- but it's copyright 2011, and was built, in part, from stories appearing in the recent anthologies Manhattan Noir, Bronx Noir, Indian Country Noir, and Warriors. So the reader has to believe that Block, for whatever reason, decided that he had one more "Jill Emerson" story in him, almost forty years after the last one, and this is it.

Getting Off is told in a tight third person by a damaged young woman, who uses a lot of names in the course of the book. Let's call her Kim, since that's probably the most important name she has in the book -- but it's not the name she was born with, or the one she's used a majority of her life. (Not that there's any name that she's used the majority of her life.) Kim is somewhere in her mid-twenties, and she's drifting around the USA. She'll stay in a town for a while, until she meets a nice man in a bar somewhere, then goes back to his place (or possibly hers), has sex with him, and then kills him.

Block keeps his prose in a stripped-down '50s noir style, so there's no point in asking questions -- this is the story he's telling, and if the social background feels more 1961 than 2011 (aside from a few lamp-posted details), we'll just have to take that as an element of style rather than substance. Kim isn't entirely happy with herself, but this is what she does, and she can't stop herself. We do learn why she does this, and it's a reasonable explanation -- pulpy and noirish, as it must be, but entirely believable.

But Kim is now becoming obsessed with the few men she didn't kill after sleeping with them. There are five of those -- just five men who, as she thinks of it, can brag to their buddies about her. And so she sets out to get rid of them, to symbolically make herself a virgin again.

Getting Off is a very episodic book, both because of Kim's lifestyle -- move to town, stay awhile, meet a guy, fuck him, kill him, move on -- and because of its origin as a series of stories. A reader does have to have a certain faith in Block as a writer to trust that Getting Off going somewhere other than a well-written series of lurid scenes of sex and death...or, perhaps, a reader might be perfectly happy with that series of lurid scenes, and not worry about any larger picture at all. But, eventually, Kim's quest to cleanse herself with the blood of her lovers leads to someone she doesn't want to kill -- her sometime roommate Rita, who may possibly become something more -- and she begins to see a life that might not be entirely based on screwing and stabbing men.

Of course, this is a noir novel, so I'm not going to promise any kind of conventional happy ending. But Getting Off ends very satisfyingly, and it tells a hell of a nasty, sexy, bloodily fun story along the way. Lawrence Block, whatever name he's writing as this time, is one of the great masters of crime fiction -- that wide field that encompasses thrillers and mysteries and noir and less definable things -- and he has definitely still got it.

[1] Which I read two months ago, but haven't yet gotten around to writing about.


Paul D said...

Was this in the George RR Martin Warriors collection? If not, there's a story with a remarkably similar plot.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Paul D: Yup. As I mentioned in the third paragraph, Getting Off was built in part out of stories originally published in four anthologies, including Warriors.

Paul D said...

Oops.. I'm going to slink off and hide my shame...

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