Thursday, November 30, 2017

Campus Tramp by Lawrence Block

Long, long ago, back when (according to some) America Was Great, sex was mostly outlawed in books, because Greatness meant repression and fear and rigid moral least in public. As that Greatness crumbled, largely from pressure from the majority of people (who were not, deliberately, part of that Greatness but instead were marginalized and ignored and outright repressed), books slowly came to include sex, step by painful step. It started with unabashedly literary novels, as it usually does, since those are both easier to defend in front of an old, corrupt judge and generally written in such a way that one's wife or gardener will not quite understand them.

But, as the '40s and '50s marched on, things that were previously red-hot and sold behind the counter migrated onto the regular racks, and the books on the regular racks saw their sex-related vocabulary grow and alter continuously, as new words suddenly became OK to set into type (as long as wives and gardeners were elsewhere). Eventually, everything was permissible, but that didn't happen until the late '60s, roughly. (In books, that is: everything is never permissible in real life, for obvious reasons.)

So there is an entire generation of books that were pushing against the limits of acceptable sex-words, year by year and adjective by adjective, which all seem artificial and stilted to one degree or another today. Some of those are "real" novels -- literary or genre, mimetic or fabulist -- and the sex parts are now mostly quaint reminders of when they were written. But the books that were all about sex then are more interesting -- since the sex they were all about sometimes barely seems like sex to a modern reader.

And thus the red-hots of one generation come to seem cinders to their children. So sad.

Campus Tramp is right in the middle of the transition: published as a sexy but legal paperback in 1960, sold (somewhat furtively) above the counter, but all about the titillation and prurient interest. It was a "sex novel," but one that could be sold on newsstands. And that means that it reads a bit oddly fifty-plus years later -- not just because of the assumed cultural baggage and prejudices of the audience, but because of the word choices and convoluted sentences still required to describe sex at the time.

It's interesting all these years later mostly because it was written by Lawrence Block, who went on to be a major force in the crime-fiction world but at the time was a sometime college student (Antioch, out in the wilds of Ohio) and sometime minor functionary of the not-entirely-honest Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Before Campus Tramp, he'd written four previous sex novels, based mostly from other novels and the kind of ideas a boy of about nineteen has while feverishly typing a sex novel for pay. This book, though, was slightly more connected to reality, the story of a young woman arriving at a college a lot like Antioch and deciding it was time for her to not be a virgin anymore.

Since it was 1959, and Block was writing a sex novel, having sex once did inevitably turn Linda Shepard into both a huge fan of the sex act (in all of its permutations, vaguely described) and a campus resource open to all, but the book is from her point of view, and she mostly has agency. (Even as she runs through Cliche Young Woman Sex Plot #2.) Luckily for the 2017 reader, since Block had not yet become a crime fiction writer, she doesn't turn to crime or meet that sort of bad end. (For many in 1959, her end was as bad as it could possibly be already. This is entirely untrue, and we need to keep that in mind and keep saying so to the enGreatenizers who think we can get back to that 1959.)

This is not a lost gem. It's not a great classic. It's a barely plausible psychological portrait of a young woman, as constructed mostly from outside by a young man who was writing nearly as fast as he could type. But it's a fun, zippy read, and this recent edition has tasteful black-and-white nude pictures to open each chapter and class up the whole thing. And it can be fascinating to a Block fan, or to a student of cultural/sexual history.

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