Saturday, October 15, 2016

Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man by Lawrence Block

I concluded the Smut Week of early August with this novel from one of the great mystery writers of our time. But it's not a mystery.

It falls into a very small subgenre: the metafictional sex novel. (I know of two other examples, Donald E. Westlake's Adios, Sheherezade and Hal Dresner's The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books.) The metafictional sex novel is written by the author of actual sex novels, the kind that are hacked out in a few weeks to fill a trashy publisher's behind-the-counter slots in the '50s or '60s, and generally is fueled by a rising tide of bile and self-loathing about writing so much bad vague sex in too short a time. Westlake's book is the exemplar of the form, and Dresner's also falls mostly into line.

(Perhaps we'll see some similar books coming out from the flood of modern ebook erotica? But those writers do it themselves, because they like it, and not to fuel a sleazy capitalist enterprise -- unless you count Amazon. So I think the self-loathing is absent, mostly, in this generation.)

Lawrence Block, though, was doing something else. He'd mostly gotten away from the sex-book world by the late '60s, and he was never the bridge-burner that Westlake was. He instead wanted to see if he could take what he learned about writing a lot of sex and turn it into a more literary exercise, an epistolary novel in a contemporary style. Maybe he also wanted to do something more cheerful than the noir and mystery books he was writing at the time; even his sex books had mostly featured varieties of thriller and mystery plots. All of that led him to the cheerfully vulgar Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, an example of how much chaos one man can cause with a typewriter, a gleeful lack of propriety, and the kind of joie de vivre that only works out right in fiction.

I read Ronald Rabbit once before, soon after Subterranean published this edition in 2000. But that reading was before this blog, and that copy was lost beneath the waters in 2011, so, eventually, I knew I had to get another copy and take another run at it. And Smut Week was the perfect opportunity.

Laurence Clarke [1], in the best fictional tradition, loses everything at the outset of this novel. First, his employer discovers that he's been "stowing away" on Whitestone Publications after the magazine for children that he was hired to edit, Ronald Rabbit's Magazine for Boys and Girls, shut down six months ago. Then, his wife Fran turns out to have been sleeping with his best friend Steve, and the two of them leave him a sad note on their way to Mexico with all of the marital savings. And his ex-wife Lisa has just called off her impending marriage, which leaves Larry on the hook for continued alimony. (This is 1971, remember.) All he has left is the typewriter that he hasn't managed to produce a novel on and a stack of Ronald Rabbit stationery. Oh, and his native wit and anarchic sense of fun, which will be as important.

So he sets out to write some letters -- to his runaway wife, to his erstwhile best friend, to his nagging ex-wife, and to his former employer. (He'll come up with more people to write to along the way, and a few of his targets will even write back -- but most of this short book is in Larry's words, as it should be.)

This is a sex book, so Larry falls into sex. And it's a sex book of the late '60s, so he falls into sex by letting himself be free and open and getting out into the world -- becoming that manic agent of lunacy, basically. It's mostly loving, consensual sex -- not always guaranteed for that era and that genre -- and it's generally in service of the overall aim of the book, which is to show how much chaos and fun Larry can cause  once he's freed from having anything else to worry about.

Ronald Rabbit is not one of Block's major novels. But it's a joyful, manic romp, easily his most gleeful book -- even the frothiest of the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels doesn't come close. And it's an interesting signpost on the long, crooked path of sex in the 20th century novel

[1] Who is clearly Not Lawrence Block. No, no, not the same person at all! Not at all like his creator! Perish the thought.

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