A Diet of Treacle – Lawrence Block

3 out of 5

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I read the dang heck out of this. Cover to cover, I tore through the descent of New York youths Shank, Joe, and Anita from relative bad to downright bad, loving every jive-talkin’, pot-smokin’ minute of it. I loved the armchair psychology of its characters; I loved how mean it was.

And yeah: I could tell that the last fourth of the book was upping the action to supplant an inability to really explain our trio’s actions; the ending is a bit of a dodge; and the street cred of the social scenes and drugs described throughout seems… questionable. But not in a distracting way. Not in the way that media will toss out lingo to purposefully cover up a lack of research into something, or that a book falls apart and you realize the author only ever had one or two good ideas; rather, this is just the earnestness of a young writer getting to grips with their voice and pacing and tone, and how deep to go with all the details. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to watch out for what else is coming from the writer. And had it been 1961 when I read this, I would’ve been damned pleased to follow that and discover the greatness Lawrence Block would be bringing us thereafter. Reading it now is pleasurable confirmation: you can see the talent in its raw form.

The story is simple, but spaced out effectively across 200 pages: Shank and Joe are roommates, and are nobodies. They disdain “normal” living for their own reasons – which Block does get in to, in some pretty complex and dark inner narratives – with Joe erring toward an easy-going life of pot and chatting up ladies, and Shank preferring the rush he gets from showing off his nickname-earning blade, and the superiority he feels when peddling drugs. Joe chats up Anita, a “good” girl. She’s one-dimensional at first, fascinated by Joe’s outsider status compared to her planned out life, but as she dips in to Joe’s – and Shank’s – world, Block digs into her personality as well, and again delivers some surprisingly dense rhetoric.

The effectiveness of pot is rather oversold, but it’s interesting reading diatribes on its needed legalization from decades ago when it only recently became legal; similarly, as events lead Shank down darker roads (Joe and Anita creeping along behind…), it’s not quite scuzzy enough, and not quite “real” enough. It’s a kind of cartoonish, Saturday morning version of street life, but Block’s terse language and his general meanness toward his characters balances it out. Added to the way he also humanizes them – all sides of it, Shank’s “darker” side and Anita’s “wholehearted” side – gives A Diet of Treacle a unique tone that keeps the pages turning… up until the admittedly disappointing “all’s well that ends well” style ending, but that’s literally only the last two pages or so, so it gets a pass as well.