Lawrence Block has a great reputation for crime/noir/mystery readers, so I decided I’d start off the summer by randomly pulling one of his books off my shelf. I ended up with A Diet of Treacle, originally published as Pads are for Pleasure or something inane like that (as by Sheldon Lord), which is one of his earlier books. Originally meant as a trashy, sleazy paperback, the book is too tame to do anything truly scandalous, ending up as a modernized love story in the vein of West Side Story (aka Romeo and Juliet), only stripped down to the floorboards.
The book follows three main characters around in the swingin’ world of late-1950s Greenwich Village hipsters. First is Joe, mentally scarred Korean War vet who spends his days doing as little as possible and smoking pot. Next up is his roommate Shank, who (if you couldn’t surmise from his name) is the psychopathic crazy of the book, making his money by selling drugs and robbing/raping people. Third is Anita, the stereotypical “good girl” who leaves her pre-determined life (idealized suburban white-collar Americana circa 1960, thanks for asking) to go slumming in the Village, where she falls for Joe. She moves in with the two and tries to be “hip.” After a lengthy start which made me wonder if I was reading an anti-beatnik marijuana morality tale, Shank finally lives up to the front cover and murders a detective who decided to reappear at the worst possible time.
The book’s flaws are serious, starting with the underdeveloped plot, underdeveloped characters, and slow pacing. Worst of all, Block breaks the golden rule of writing—Show Don’t Tell—in a hard, ugly, downright painful way. The book slows down into long periods of telling, stopping frequently at Exposition Junction, and becomes a real drag in the first two halves. One entire chapter consists of Joe’s introspection; needless to say it was boring as hell, so I skimmed it. The point-of-view is third-person omniscient, jumping between the three without any hint that we’ve switched characters and back again, making it hard to tell them apart. Namely because the characters are mostly underdeveloped; Shank is the strongest, and easily unlikable, but Joe and Anita were so two-dimensional and stereotypical I couldn’t really care about them.
A Diet of Treacle is a fast and effortless read—I finished it in two short sessions—with an interesting idea and a lot of problems. I can’t say I’ve ever disliked a Hard Case Crime, but this one sure disappointed me. Much like with Killing Castro, Block proves he’s got talent; his dialogue is sharp, Anita’s transformation is well done, and when the book really opens up, it goes places… the idea is definitely there. The ending and last third of the book, combined with the Alice in Wonderland quote, is solid gold, a fantastic idea. But, what could have worked wonders as a short story is too bloated and sagging as a novel. Judging by reviews, a lot of people love this one, and an equal number of people hate it, so YMMV.
I’ve seen several rave reviews of this novel since I wrote this; I’ve thought of re-reading it to see if my opinion was too harsh or not. In any case, I found the novel more interesting as a cross between time-capsule and period piece: it tells me more about the early ’60s than a novel today set in the early ’60s would. And there are some really strong ideas at play, showing that even an early Block was a force to be reckoned with.
But honestly? It struck me—still does—as a simple, straightforward sleaze tale of a guy and a girl getting into trouble with drugs and the Beat life, which comes crashing down because of their nutjob murderer friend, and then they’re struggling to escape it. The last section has a some cool ideas thrown in. Is it fun? Yeah, but I liked other Hard Cases better; it’s weaker than the other Block novels. Is it the “stunning,” “breathtaking” novel that other reviewers have called it? I’m not so sure; I’d give it an average, but not extraordinary, rating. (There’s also quite a few reviews that I agree with.) Give it a read and prove me wrong.