Lawrence Block has had a varied and at times wacky career, displaying some odd twists and turns and a habit of always writing with almost terrifying professionalism. Even on those rare occasions when Block is not especially good, he still functions on such a professional level that his lieast interesting books are still compulsively readable. The relatively few less-interesting books of his that I’ve read seem a little like running Lou Reed through AutoTune…except, as you probably know, there is no AutoTune in writing crime novels. Block manages it anyway.
Some of Block’s more formulaic crime novels are less inspired than his earlier, more hard-boiled work, and it’s really not my cup of tea. But in my experience even the coziest of his novels never deviate from a simple and almost reflexive level of readability. They’re so piquant and yet so standardized that I’d think there was some sort of deception involved, if I didn’t know better. And I know better because I’ve read the colossally bland later entries in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, in which it becomes clear that either a) Connelly is using a ghostwriter, or b) he’s phoning it in with almost insulting disinterest in the craft. Block never seemed like that, even when he was cranking out stuff that he must have gotten paid $50 for. He always pounded it out with a vengeance that shows an almost creepy competence with the storytelling process.
Viewed in that context, A Diet of Treacle, first published in 1961 as Pads Are For Passion under Block’s soft-porn pseudonym Sheldon Lord, is one freaky book, man, like, crazy. It’s one of those odd twists and turns that Block’s career took: a straight-up exploitation novel of the type that’s perhaps the purest distilled form of the divine trash that inspired Hard Case Crime’s branded look.
A Diet of Treacle is part of that genre that circulates as postcards hipsters snicker at in funky tchotchke shops in the Mission or on Christopher Street, not the sorts of things a sane person actually reads. Believe me, I’ve tried! But if you, like me, can pore in rapturous horror over the execrable prose, tight sweaters and John Waters melodramas in the novels of Ed Wood Jr. and get baked crispy to Reefer Madness, then the exploitation genre that birthed A Diet of Treacle is for you.
Perhaps more importantly, Treacle is one of the best examples of the weird and small sub-subgenre of “Beatsploitation,” which featured novels with Beat Generation themes. Trashy publishers were trying to feed off the same craze that spawned Gilligan’s chin-beard on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Beatsploitation books are actually hard to get your hands on. That’s because the amazingly weird covers make them collector’s items.
Viewed as a trashy “exploitation vacation” from Block’s far more intense works (Mona/Grifter’s Game, The Girl With the Long Green Heart) and Hard Case Crime’s many high-quality sucker punches, A Diet of Treacle is an infuriating and annoying book. It can be cheesy at times…in fact, it is cheesy, most of the time. But it refuses to be the piece of crap that other exploitation novels often turn out to be. It’s packed with camp, and it holds a fascinating place in history. I mean…a beatsploitation drug-hysteria novel written by the great Lawrence Block? Like…whoa. For what it’s worth, this book is best read with On the Road kept in your recent memory.
Anyway, Treacle concerns a nice-ish kid and a not-so-nice-ish Korean War vet getting lost on the road to Crazyville, man, and getting mixed up with one bad man who’s, like, out there, man, I mean like BEAT, you dig? Horse, man. The big H. Like, CRAZY. That’s about as authentic as it feels. There’s no real complex crime story, but at no point does the action slow down; it’s Block through and through, a fast-moving and breezy despite its dorky overblown exploitation elements. And there are plenty of those; it’s fairly silly, actually. But it never bogs down like a hell of a lot of crime novels. It’s an easy read, satisfying enough, and a transporting and inspired glimpse of an imagined seedy underworld that never existed outside of trashy novels.
If you’re interested in counterculture history, there are a lot of interesting references here. For instance, “Mexican Brown,” in modern times a type of heroin, is referred to as a crappy kind of marijuana. That seems like it was probably just an error on Block’s part — but who knows? I couldn’t find a reference for the slang term having ever applied to marijuana…but it’s moments like that — glimpses of historical underground and criminal mysteries — that absolutely make a book like this for me.
Overall, the portrayal of the drug culture from the era of the book is fascinating as a pop-culture artifact. However, the depth and accuracy seem to be pretty weak. The big moral turnaround of the book is when a girl gets high on tea and suddenly goes nuts, having public sex with her druggie boyfriend in front of everyone at a downtown beat party, man. Like crazy. It’s fairly silly. It’s more than a little hysterical. But it’s never really bad enough to be funny, which works both for and against it.
That said, A Diet of Treacle is only maybe the twelfth exploitation novel I’ve ever read all the way through, some of the others being Junky and Queer by William S. Burroughs, Killer in Drag and Death of a Transvestite/Let Me Die In Drag by the aforementioned Wood, and S is for Stud, rumored to be by Jim Thompson. (Incidentally, that total doesn’t include straight-up porn novels; if it did, the number would easily be well into the triple digits, which is a little scary when I think about it as a virtual pile of sleaze.)
I honestly have no idea if Block rewrote this thing for the Hard Case Crime publication, to make it match his level of expected competence now that he’s had a career to learn his craft. If he did, I can’t blame him. The results are pretty enjoyable, if not exactly good.
If Block didn’t rewrite Treacle before allowing it to be reprinted, and this is how it came blasting outta his brain near the start of his career, for low pay and probably without much editing?
That, then, is absolutely terrifying.The guy just cranked this stuff out when he was twenty-three? That makes me wanna lay on the floor and twitch. It may not be good, but it’s some of the most competent not-good around.