Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties paperback original novels about the Beat generation appeared regularly. Sex, drugs, jazz, weirdness. Today few of them bear rereading. Certainly Vin Packer's take on the subject holds up very well but some of the bigger names who took a tour through Kerouac-land ended up looking and sounding silly. They were writing tour guides without having ever been there.
A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block on the other hand has the feel of first-hand observation. Set in Greenwich Village in 1960, peopled by faux-beat losers of various kind and a cop out of Malcom Braly, the drug scene, the crime scene and the scene of hardscrabble drifting life in the big bad city crackles with authenticity.
There are three prime players. Joe is a cipher of sort, not a good guy or a bad guy, one of those people who just sort of take up space. His friend Shank, an angry street hustler, suports them both by selling pot. The third person, and by far the most interesting, is Anita, a young, attractive woman engaged to a square engineer while still living under the auspices of an overly pious grandmother.
When the main heroin dealer in the area is busted, Shank decides to quit selling pot and go into the junk business, at first unbeknownest to Anita and Joe, with whom he is sharing a shabby little apartment.
The transformation of Anita from the good girl to the lover of a drifter like Joe to somebdy inadvertently involved in murder is what gives the book its power. Block is too good a writer to try to explain away her changes with melodramatic motivatons. She remains somewhat mysterious throughout the book, both to the reader and to herself. At one point, even though she considers marrying Joe, she wonders if she even loves him. At another, she begins to feel oppressed by his lifestyle of hanging out in beat dives (Block has a beat poet read a "poem" that manages to be both short and interminable) and letting Shank dicate much of his life.
Block is always good with his female characters and Anita, sweet, warm, confused, ultimately as adrift as Joe himself, is a fine, endearing creation.
The party scenes are spot on. Cheap wine, portentuous and pretentious conversations, sex sex sex and unending tributes to the powers of pot. Everybody yakking so much about how good pot makes them feel it starts sounding like a revival meeting with hemp substituting for God. Very wittily observed.
The plot kicks in full tilt in the the third act and it's breathtaking. The hard ass cop, whom we meet early on, reappears and what had been minor cat-and-mouse becomes explosive confrontation.
Of all the hardboiled writers working today, Block for me remains the most believable in dealing with crime and criminals. He's able to write about them and their milieu without tricking them up or romaniticising them. And, as he demonstrates here, he was doing it as far back as 1961.
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