Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block

I've been reading Lawrence Block's books almost as long as I can remember -- his "Burglar" books were about the first thing I ever discovered in the adult mystery section of my local library. (Back when that section was in a different wing of the library, and then upstairs, from the kids and YA books. That was a big step to take, I'll tell you -- but I did it around age ten, probably about the same as those of you reading this.)

Block, though, had been writing books much longer than I could remember; he was born in 1938 and started publishing in his teens. By the time he got to A Diet of Treacle, in 1961, he was cranking out sex books on a near-monthly basis and regularly writing mystery novels and stories as well.

Treacle is very early and minor Block, and it shows signs of being written by someone who was spending most of his writing time on books that require a sex scene in every chapter. (This book doesn't actually have those scenes, but it could have, if Block had tweaked it just slightly.) It's basically the story of a bohemian triangle in the boho Greenwich Village of the day: pre-hippie, but definitely already countercultural.

Joe Milani is a twenty-seven-year old Korean War vet who dropped out of college, and, almost entirely, out of life as well. He can't get motivated to do anything, and only intermittently wonders why he doesn't want to do anything. He lives cheaply -- in Manhattan, another sign that this book is set in the now-gone past -- mooching off women or friends, doing odd jobs, just getting along.

Joe lives with Leon "Shank" Marsten, a twenty-year old minor marijuana dealer who turns out to be a psychopath, but at first just seems to Joe to be only slightly more directed and motivated than he is himself. As long as they don't do anything or want anything, the fact that Shank has no real regard for human life doesn't matter. They both spend a lot of time smoking pot, which Block doesn't demonize -- though Joe, in particular, is clearly a stoner/slacker, of the kind that would be much more familiar in later years.

But then Joe meets Anita Carbone, a nice Hunter College girl -- she lives with her grandmother in "wop Harlem" -- slumming downtown because she, too, feels vaguely unsatisfied with her life. Anita convinces Joe to seduce her, eventually -- he's far too passive for it to be entirely his own idea -- and then moves in with them. (This isn't completely convincing -- slumming is one thing, moving in with your new boyfriend and his creepy roommate in a coldwater flat is another -- but let it slide.)

Shank was contained and relatively harmless as long as things didn't change, but now there are a lot of changes. First, there's Anita, having sex with Joe in the one-room apartment. A Narcotics detective is poking around Shank's business, and has already arrested his supplier. And Shank's new supplier pushes him to expand into heroin, with greater profits but also greater dangers.

This is a crime novel, which means it all erupts into crime -- not just drug dealing, but rape and eventually murder. And it's a 1961 crime novel, which means the criminals can't just get away with it. Keep that in mind if you decide to read it.

A Diet of Treacle is most interesting as a portrait of a time and place -- from internal evidence, it's set in the late '50s, given Joe's age and Korean war service -- that conventional wisdom thinks didn't turn into itself for a few years yet. This Village is pre-hippies, pre-Vietnam protests, even pre-the folk music boom. And yet it was already a magnet for disaffected young people, already the place for people who didn't know what they wanted, but knew they didn't want that.

Block spends a lot of time in his character's heads, particularly Joe's. A large part of that is padding; he has a short, simple story to tell, and to get it up to novel length he needs to have extended scenes of Joe or Anita thinking about themselves and what they want out of life. They're decently rounded characters, but you can clearly see the gears working and Block figures out how to show rather than tell and how to get enough plot together to fill up a whole book.

A Diet of Treacle isn't a typical Hard Case book -- it moves slowly for the first two-thirds, and it's not essentially a crime novel at all, just a novel about three characters that has some crime in it. And it's a minor Block novel as well. But it's solidly professional, and great to have available again for Block fans.

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