Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #114: Borderline by Lawrence Block

I don't think the purpose of pulp fiction is to enforce public morality, exactly. That implies an official stature and teleology that is completely unjustified. But damn if pulp fiction doesn't enforce the public morality of its day really strongly -- and the way those stories tend to end quickly and violently makes the action of "fate" that much more obvious.

Borderline is a pulp novel from 1962 by Lawrence Block, here reprinted for the first time in about fifty years along with three stories of a similar vintage (two very short stories with kicker endings from '58 and '59, then a novelette from 1963 with more nuance in it). And boy howdy does it enforce the public morality of 1962, even if it seems for a long time that it might not.

It's one of those random-lives-intersecting plots, introducing four people in El Paso, Texas -- right on the border with Juarez, and, in those days, the border was a line you could walk across as long as there wasn't anything too obviously wrong. The action of the novel moves back and forth between the two cities, with Juarez the wild site, full of whores and gambling and live sex shows, and El Paso the boring spinster sister, clean but dull.

The four people are:
  • Marty, a professional gambler, living in El Paso for the last several years but mostly "working" over the border.
  • Meg, a young divorcee who stopped off on her way back to Chicago when she realized she had no reason at all to go back to Chicago. Recently freed from an old, dull husband, she's ready to live on her own terms.
  • Lily, a teenage runaway from Denver, most recently living in San Francisco. Her "boyfriend" whored her out to a nasty john and fled. leaving her broke and looking for somewhere to rest.
  • Weaver, the obligatory murderous madman, to remind us this is a pulp novel, and that nasty things have to happen to people looking for pleasure and normal life.
Marty and Meg meet and fall into bed; Lily finds herself an amenable group of locals and a way to make some money with serious downsides. Weaver lurks about to add tension, and kills some minor characters to show he means it.

They do all come together in the end, as they have to. It does not end particularly well for any of them. And conventional 1962 morality is strongly enforced, particularly on women who might want something other than a white picket fence and a pipe-smoking husband.

This is early Block, when he was still writing for a market. He was an excellent writer structurally even then -- this book is full of fine sentences and paragraphs and scenes -- but his characters are more surface than they would be starting later in the '60s.

But, even this far back, Block stories are full of characters doing things they don't expect to and trying to find reasons afterward: sometimes horrified, sometimes thrilled, sometimes both at once. It may just be me, but that's what I treasure the most in his work: the sense that people are confusing and unknowable and contradictory, and that you are "people" too.

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