It’s a truism that mathematicians and theoretical physicists seem to peak young. Newton’s fundamental work was done in his twenties, as was Einstein’s greatest work. A lot of musical acts tend to do so as well. I don’t think it’s coincidental (or mere snobbery) that so many people fall in love with bands and musicians early in their careers. Even the Beatles were finished as a group before any of the members had turned thirty. I forget who said it, but I’ve always understood the person who said “You get your whole life to make your first record or write your first book. After that, you’re expected to produce them on some kind of schedule.” And sometimes, there are other artists — painters, athletes, writers — who stick around too long, and even if we cheer what they do now, it’s too often a sort of lifetime achievement award
But there are exceptions. Michelangelo was working on The Last Judgement when he was 70. Picasso worked frantically throughout his life. Bertrand Russell won the Nobel for literature when he was pushing 80. Satchel Paige set down the Red Sox for three innings when he was (we think) 59.
I’m not trying to compare Lawrence Block to Michelangelo, Picasso, or Russell — nor would he want me to, really (though he might like the Satchel Paige bit). But here he is, now in his eighth decade of getting published. When I met him in person for the first time ten years ago, he told me that he had pretty much decided to retire, that he thought he might be written out. “Boxers aren’t the only ones,” he said, “who get into the ring too many times.”
Since that time, he’s published short stories, anthologies (including several in which I’ honored to appear), collections of nonfiction writing, and yes, novels as well.
Which brings us to his newest book, Dead Girl Blues. It’s not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but that’s okay — we already have one of those. What it is, is a damned fine book that is also a fine, damned book. What do I mean? I was lucky enough to read the book in manuscript last summer around the time he arrived here at Mondoville. “It’s an excellent book,” I told him, “but I think it’ll be hard to sell.” Then I got to the point. “Necrophilia is a tough buck.”
Yes, it’s a book that opens with decidedly unsavory activity. A man goes to a bar, picks up a woman, murders her, and has sex with her corpse. More than once (the sex part, that is. Only one killing was necessary.) This, as we say in the English prof biz, is the inciting incident, and I suppose it incites a lot of things: horror, revulsion, a general sense of wrongness, and the rest of the plot.
Not surprisingly, major publishers did the well known “It’s a fine book, but not for us” routine. And as Block notes, they weren’t wrong. They didn’t want to publish it as it was written, but Larry remained true to his vision of the story. So in an earlier era, the book may have been damned to disappear into Block’s papers, to be discovered someday in an archive at the U of South Carolina.
But it isn’t an earlier era, and having had some experience with self-publication in recent years, he decided to bring Dead Girl Blues out himself, albeit with a warning that the book is so dark that it veers into the ultraviolet.
And it is, as I’ve (I hope) made clear. But it’s also fearless, and it does what art is supposed to do — it shows us the world through the eyes of someone other than ourselves (and in this case, thank God for that.)
What we have here is the story of a man who has done something hideous, something vile. But this isn’t the last act of his life — or at least he doesn’t want it to be — and the book, presented as the protagonist’s journal/autobiography of sorts, is chiefly the story of the rest of his life.
Because, you see, his life goes on. He leaves the area, finds a career, settles down. He meets a woman and they marry (and yes, versions of his… um, quirk… manifest from time to time.) To all outward appearances, he’s a pretty normal guy. He could be your neighbor, or the Little League coach, or any number of things, really. But he’s also the person who did that hideous, vile thing, and has been undetected as the decades go by. So he’s both. Or maybe he’s neither, or he’s something in between, and that’s kind of the point, I think.
T.S. Eliot praised the Jacobean playwright John Webster, whose Senecan tragedies left bodies piled on the stage like cordwood, as being able to see — and show us — “the skull beneath the skin.” Similarly, Eric Hoffer once said that if men’s faces were as unfinished as their souls, monsters would walk the streets. But of course, monsters do walk the streets, whether we recognize them or not, and Dead Girl Blues is the story of such a person. But at the same time, he’s a person not entirely unlike people we know, people we’ve met, perhaps even people we are. No, we haven’t committed this sort of atrocity. But many — most? — of us have done something terrible in our own sight, things that we don’t want others to see or know, things that we believe make us monstrous, that we pray will never be revealed. How many of us would want to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done? Must doing a monstrous thing mean we are monsters?
Please understand — I recognize (perhaps better than many) that debts warrant payment, and that some payments can never be made in this world. So we settle for the substitutes that are available. At the same time, we also know that some people are monsters, that others may perhaps be monsters, and that the rest of us are safer with those people separated from us.
It’s a job of the artist to show us the world. Some show us the world as we would like it to be. Others show the world that we fear is there, or that could be there. But they have in common that they hold it up to us in ways that may be familiar as our own skin or as alien as the sight of someone we love in the casket. Very rarely, an artist can create something — a painting, a piece of music, a book — that does all these things at once. At the age of 81, Block has written such a book (it will be published on his 82nd birthday.) What is it he has written?
Person as monster. Monster as person. Both us and not us. And if you wait at that particular crossroad, and if you’re willing to be horrified by what you see and by the lens through which you see it, then maybe Lawrence Block will meet you there to sing you those Dead Girl Blues.