the Goliard

November 2003

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[What's the Rating System?]

Small Town                                                              

by Lawrence Block


We've been a big fan of Lawrence Block in the past (see mystery list) and find him to be as prolific and solid a writer as there is in the mystery genre. He can be gritty as hell, best demonstrated in his Matthew Scudder series, and flippant and fun as in his Bernie Rhodenbarr burglar books. His dialog always rings true to the ear and he seems to bring enthusiasm, believability, humor and aplomb to each successive literary effort. Therefore when we heard he had written an erotic thriller, his "big New York City novel", we were eager to get our hands on it. Unfortunately for us, we finally did so in audio book form, choosing to take it with us on a long car trip as our sole source of listening entertainment to help bide the vast expanses of a desert road trip.

First a warning that if you had planned on reading the book yourself, you should stop reading this immediately. We certainly don't want to take any money out of Mr. Block's pockets, for one thing, and furthermore, the issues we have with the book may well be our own and we wouldn't feel great about discouraging others from exploring the novel themselves lest it prove enlightening to them in some way. And at 448 pages, there is much to explore. Block himself calls it his most ambitious work yet and it is a story told from multiple view points and with several different storylines that intersect, the idea being that even though New York is a notoriously big impersonal metropolis, the human interactions within the five boroughs make it really just a small world, small place, small town. That sort of thing. Especially post 9-11, when the book is set, and when New Yorkers understandably found themselves reaching out to each other as never before.

Small Town shows great promise initially and begins in true Block style with the mysterious strangling death of a woman by a killer that seems to be taking advantage of a cleaning person's rounds by doing his dirty work in a way that has the poor schlep scrubbing away the evidence just before discovering the bodies. Block introduces a wide array of rich characters right out of the gates, the former police commissioner, a lawyer, a writer, an art gallery owner, some detectives, and various other NYC denizens and seems primed to use the killer to drag them all together as we, and they, struggle to solve the case. Unfortunately however, Block then proceeds to solve the case for us almost immediately and place all his attention instead on the sex lives of the people involved. 

The killer, called The Carpenter by the media due to his penchant for using common building tools in his crimes, is supposed to be a grieving elderly gentleman who lost his wife and children to the 9-11 tragedy and has decided in the aftermath that the random killing of other New Yorkers is his calling to help ease the city's pain. The Carpenter's whole death and rebirth philosophy and the explanations of how he loves the city so much that he must sacrifice more people as some sort of cleansing is as implausible as it was hard to listen to. Why a retired insurance agent or whatever he is, no matter how aggrieved he might be, would decide to randomly fire bomb gay night clubs, bludgeon prostitutes with framing hammers, and strangle real estate agents is never satisfactorily explained. And as every aficionado of the genre knows, even, and in fact, especially, the psychos and lunatics that carry out the heinous crimes within the pages, need to be believable on some level and have their psychosis, whatever it is, make some semblance of sense. It would have been even worse if we would have been made to wait until the end of the book for this supposed explanation of the Carpenter's actions which is, perhaps, why Block chose to get it out of the way early.

The writer character, the one initially accused of the first murder, is supposed to be interesting because he was drunk and doesn't really remember whether he strangled the women or not. He could have, he seems to think, and ends up benefiting greatly from the murder charge when his books immediately become valuable due to his infamous status. Not a bad character all around but there is this fetish you see, a small blue rabbit, found to be missing from the dead woman's apartment and even though the cops come and completely search the writer's cramped studio looking for it, he somehow later finds it prominently displayed within his sock drawer. Block however has included a previous scene where the Carpenter is depicted carrying the animal around in his pocket debating whether to place it at other crime scenes so we must assume, once the writer has subsequently found the object within his dwelling, that the Carpenter is interested in framing the writer, or at least has infiltrated his living space and perhaps plans to return to some grisly end. He never does however, and inexplicably the rabbit's presence is never explained at all. In fact, Block seems to have forgotten all together the rabbit's history and that it was in the Carpenter's possession at one point. Too leave such a supposed key element of the story unresolved is unforgivable.

The explanation for the lapse however is possibly that Block gets so caught up in the erotic aspect of his book that he completely forgets to wrap up the mystery. And don't give us any crap about how us regular folk out here in Iowa can't stomach a little erotic with our thriller. The thing is that we at least need to have a little thrill in our thriller as well. When the art gallery owner, Susan Pomerance, begins piercing her organs, masturbating left and right, hot waxing, giving public blow jobs, talking men into sucking each other's penises, shackling wrists, strapping on apparatii in order to anally penetrate various acquaintances, and supposedly using sex as her own form of art to splash around the city, she begins to take over the book as if her libido was it's only important message. She is portrayed as some sort of liberated succubus that forces men to give in to their secret fantasies and reevaluate their whole lives based on the fact that an attractive woman is willing to focus her entire essence on her sexual self and has decided to act out every kinky whim that crosses her mind. While this may or may not be interesting or earth shattering depending on one's personal experiences and while we typically would steer clear of ad hominem attacks that question a man's right to share his fantasies, the whole thing comes off as completely self indulgent writing that wreaks of either repression and unfulfilled dreams or a lack of any grasp of what is really going on out there and the effect it would likely have on real people. All the men in the book that come in contact with Susan are supposedly so completely mesmerized by her willingness to toss boundaries aside, pierce her nipples and hot wax her pubic area, that they immediately abandon their regular lives and lose all concentration just at the thought of seeing her one night a week. So what? Pierced nipples? Pubic waxings. In most major cities you can't swing a cat without having it catch a claw on a nipple ring. Hell there is enough of that sort of stuff in rural Arizona these days to make it laughable that similar behavior among the heavy hitters ensconced in the Manhattan art scene would be the substance on which to hang the plot of a huge book. Especially one supposedly addressing the haunting after effects of 9-11.

By the time the Carpenter is finally caught (as he sails aimlessly around the harbor lobbing small Molotov cocktails in vessels along the waterfront on September 6th or 7th of the next year, to no described effect by the way), and caught incidentally by the ex police commissioner who has been stripped nude, effectively exposing his willingness to be waxed himself (a fact which the Carpenter briefly puzzles over) it would have to be called egregiously anti climatic if the plot had in any way held together up until that point. By this time however, we could care less what happens to the Carpenter, the depilated commissioner, the orifice plunging art dealer, or the city of New York itself at least in the context of this book. Block seems to be saying that the net effect of S-Eleven was that people are still out wandering around behaving as irrationally and self indulgently as before except that some now have less body hair and others have been senselessly killed. The only theory that holds any water to explain this is that perhaps Block himself was so traumatized by the events befalling his beloved city that he has realigned his priorities and intends to address unfulfilled sexual fantasies now that he sees how fleeting life can be.

In any event all is not lost in the effort as Small Town has some great descriptions of various NYC neighborhoods, offers some entertaining insight into the publishing business and colorfully describes other uniquely New York experiences to the point where the city itself becomes the most interesting part of the read. Not surprisingly, the characters that ring the most true are the cops and bartenders and alcoholic private detectives that fill the minor roles and leave the reader longing for Mr. Block to get back to what he does best which is spinning out good, solid mysteries. It's not that we begrudge the writer for branching out and experimenting with new material but this latest effort is akin to when Michael Jordan quit the NBA to pursue a baseball career. We didn't blame him for it and may have even admired him for giving it a shot but we were sure glad when he finally donned that Bulls uniform again. Hopefully the next time we encounter Mr. Block he'll be exploring the challenges facing Matthew Scudder's sobriety or Mrs. Rhodenbarr's favorite son's kleptomania and not further chronicling the adventures of Ms. Pomerance as she decides that taking large runny craps on the bare waxed backs of her shackled seductees somehow makes for titillating reading. 


As an after note it should be mentioned that the reader of the Audio Book George Guidall is excellent and almost succeeds at making the words he has been given to work with plausible and gripping.



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