69 Barrow Street – Lawrence Block

3 out of 5

Writing as Sheldon Lord in 1961, Lawrence Block’s erotic pulp 69 Barrow Street – winky title aside – seems very against its subgenre grain: set in the NY Village in – as per our omniscient narrator – a post-artistic haven slump, now split between the pretty, shopified, gentrified blocks and slums housing addicts and sleaze. The way it initially approaches its sexual content is as something of a disease: Ray is disgusted with himself for shacking up with the kink-pursuing Stella, going through self-disgusted motions in her various orgies and drug parties, which are described with a frank, unerotic detachment. Ray used to be a painter, and now… Now he is just Stella’s plaything.

And while Stella might be a spin on a noir type – the spin here being that of a sex-obsessed sadist – there’s some progressiveness and subversion in this initial character sketches, embracing gay and straight as one thing on the sexuality spectrum, and trying to hint at some emotional undertones to Stella’s actions – that it’s not just seeking pleasure, or pain, but the need for some element of control, in any form. The same actually goes for her boy toy, who is initially our POV but isn’t necessarily a typical everyman, or down-on-his-luck antihero: we can sense how this good-looking dude slid into his current “occupation,” and Block gives him a realistic voice in trying to find his way out.

When Susan moves into the same building – the titular address, by the way – this interesting balance of tones is maintained: Susan is gay, and certainly the sunshine comparison to Stella’s doom and gloom, but she’s not innocent or naive, either. And while she forms the third on a triangle that’s surely going to be trouble – she has a lust for Stella, but forms a friendship with Ray – Block again dodges out from a typical path by not having Stella or Susan immediately divebomb one another, and actually building the friendship with Ray.

But: this approach comes at a cost, and that cost – firstly – is something of a lack of tension. Block pushes on Ray’s descent into further frivolities with Stella as a replacement, and thus pushes Stella’s abuses as well. This goes to some very dark places, with the term ‘rape’ tossed around very frequently, but this feels for effect, unfortunately: it’s not dealt with. And once Block finally has his characters in place where he’s ready to push them forward a bit – 100+ pages in – that progressiveness gets thrown under the bus of an incredibly dated 60s mentality, combined with obnoxiously cheeseball Hollywood love scenes. (For real: does anyone like sitting there while someone kiss-pecks them all over for like 20 minutes straight?) The final nail of ineffectiveness is the wrap-up: while the triangle itself is dealt with interestingly, Block puts a stinger on the end that renders one character’s tribulations as wholly useless – they were just included so they could be part of this conclusion.

This whole last section isn’t necessarily bad; it’s more in style with the trashy vibe of an erotic pulp. But it does balance out what’s initially a more surprising approach, with less extreme – and thus more believable – versions of its characters.