Thursday, August 30, 2012

Strange Embrace/69 Barrow Street by Lawrence Block

There's nothing like old pulp fiction to show you viscerally how people thought they were supposed to live -- not how they really did live, in all of its messiness and day-to-day details, but what the narrative of their lives was, the stories that they told themselves about how they were. Fiction that aims at art bends events to fit its conceptions, but pulp doesn't have that luxury: pulp thrives on speed of production and speed of comprehension, so a pulp story can't be too specific or idiosyncratic; it needs to tell the story that the reader expects, and get out of the way.

Two of Lawrence Block's early pulp novels -- he's written a lot of other novels, and shorter works, in various modes since then, but these two books definitely are pulp, and were written at speed in the pulp manner -- have recently been reprinted in a back-to-back edition from Hard Case Crime: Strange Embrace and 69 Barrow Street, both paperback originals from 1962. Each was originally written under a pseudonym -- Ben Christopher and Sheldon Lord, respectively. Neither one would benefit from a serious explication of its plot and themes: they're pulp novels, written quickly to be ready quickly, to give a quick thrill to a mostly young, mostly male audience that just doesn't exist for written fiction anymore. They're both stories of young men who get caught up in "sexy" stories in New York's Greenwich Village -- one is a successful theatrical producer from uptown, investigating a series of murders among his cast, and the other is a local painter, struggling with what we would call a unrealized sadomasochistic relationship with his live-in girlfriend.

But what both books have in common is deeper than that, and is implied by the first title: any "sexy" book in the late '50s and early '60s used "Strange" as a near-synonym for lesbianism, and so both of these books have important lesbian characters. Important to the plots of the books, I mean: they're not going to show up in any history of the literary depiction of gay women, since they're heavily stereotyped according to the assumptions of the time: man-haters, damaged, with something wrong with them because they're not the same as everybody else. [1] The lesbian characters are semi-surprises in both books because they look like "normal" women -- they're not short-haired plaid-shirt-wearing construction workers.

Because these are pulp novels, they're very concerned with "normal" -- 69 Barrow Street even more so than Strange Embrace, which is really just a slightly sleazy mystery trying to milk some frisson from that lesbianism. Barrow, though, is a novel about sex and about how people should interact with each other -- the narrative voice reflexively tells us (meaning that original audience, all of those crew-cutted boys across the country, dreaming of a sexual liberation they didn't seriously expect would arrive later that decade) that it's so very, very wrong, so not normal for women to want to have sex with women, or for any people to want to have sex other than the normal way. (There's an amusingly vanilla orgy in the middle of this book -- entirely couples pairing off and going off to quiet places to have mostly straight hetero sex that's probably in the missionary position most of the time -- and this is horribly, startlingly shocking, and shows that these people are irreparably damaging their sensibilities and souls, even more so because they smoked marijuana beforehand!)

Look, don't read these books to tell you what your sex life should be like -- don't read any fifty-year-old pulp novels for that, because they'll screw you up. (Today's pulp, all of those manly thrillers with fainting damsels and lovingly-described military hardware, are not going to be any better, either.) But do read them to see what people used to think was far outside the pale, and to enjoy how Block was a fine craftsman of prose and incident even at that very early date in his career: even when he was acting as a conduit for standard plots and potted characters, he made them as rounded as they could be, into exemplars of their time rather than the stereotypes that he had to work with.

[1] 1962 was back when "normal" was a defined thing rather than a range; America didn't understand statistics yet.

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