March 8th, 2008

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"What did they live on?" said Alice...

...who always took great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

"They lived on treacle," said the Dormouse.

"They couldn't have done that, you know," remarked Alice gently remarked. "They'd have been ill."

"So they were," said the Dormouse. "Very ill."

-- From Alice in Wonderland

From this epigraph (involving Alice's constant questioning of a story related by the Dormouse during the Mad Hatter's Tea Party) comes the title of this latest addition to the 2008 read list:

21) A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block. (January 2008, Hard Case Crime, 205 pages)
A reprint of a novel written in 1961, A Diet of Treacle (originally published as Pads are for Passion under the pseudonym Sheldon Lord), follows a trio of hipsters in the Greenwich Village of the Beat era through a complex story of sex, drugs, and murder.

Anita Carbone is a "good girl" from the right side of town, and yet she is bored with her life. She ventures to The Village looking for a little excitement. She certainly finds it.

Joe Milani is mired in immobility. A stint in Korea stunted him (emotionally, anyway), and now he spends his days burnt out among the Hip, smoking marijuana and otherwise wasting time. In Anita, he finds a little something that he's been missing.

Shank (don't call him Leon Marsten) is an outsider who believes he has found some like minds among the residents of The Village. He pays the rent as a dope connection, lives with his best "friend" Joe Milani, and scores with every girl he sets out to (putting the fear of god into them via his switchblade certainly helps loosen their legs).

Through these three characters (who are, by novel's end very ill indeed), we delve into a gritty story of friendship, immaturity, despair, instability, addiction, and (quite possibly) redemption...

Lawrence Block is probably best known these days for his many mystery series (including the Matthew Scudder novels, the Burglar/Bernie Rhodenbarr books, and the "fledgling" Hit Man/Keller series). However, this reader has a particular fondness for the author's older works, which are finding their way back into print via the Hard Case Crime line. HCC's first Block re-release, Grifter's Game, was as much a sock in the gut horror story as it was a gripping crime thriller. Their fourth, A Diet of Treacle, is no less accomplished and enthralling despite the fact that its voice is a far cry different.

Not content to be use the familiar hard boiled Chandler/Hammett voice, ...Treacle presents its story using experimentation and stylistics of the Beats (I cannot say for certain whether this is for appreciation or satire, though I suspect it's a little of both), including a successful, brief shift to second person perspective (for a YOU ARE THERE involvement in the evocation of a character's psychological landscape), a piece of Beat style poetry (reminiscent of Howl-era Allen Ginsberg), the Jack Kerouac monologue, a William Burroughs inspired meditation on addiction, and more. As a longtime reader of Beat Lit, I appreciate these sorts of things. In a rather nice touch, these Beat stylings are strained through the psyche's of some down and out hipster characters who aspire to the original Beats' greatness but possess little of the actual genius. There is a charm to these elements, particularly in the occasional failures to capture the same urgent energy...

Behind these stylings is a slowly building suspense story about moral disintegration, the emotional crux of which involves (of course) murder. While the storyline itself is quite good, the real wallop of the book is found in the odd blend of crime style and beat sensibilities. Through the masterful evocation of location, time, subculture, character and suspense, this novel succeeds.

This entry in the Hard Case Crime surprised the hell out of me (it's not your typical hardboiled thriller). This reader quite loved it.