Passion Alley by Andrew Shaw (Lawrence Block), Nightstand Book #1611, 1962
Block was (and perhaps still is) at his best when writing in the first-person, whether his narrators are criminals, lost young men, con artists, burglars, hit men or private eyes.
Such is the case with Passion Alley, the story of Jack Edwards’ downward spiral after being kicked out of college (it’s also interesting to read a “sex” book from 1962, after Block started to come into his own, publishing under his own name at Gold Medal, like with Mona and others).
Jack is a little older than your usual undergrad, 23, having served in Korea and hitching onto the G.I. Bill. Block adds an interesting aside about how the college campuses of the U.S. changed after Korea, when all these battle-hard young men began to mix in with the soft rich kids and intellectuals who were worlds apart from the battlefield. Jack is also in an upper-crust fraternity, only because he’s a good football player, and the football team is important to the college. A teammate gets killed one game, and Jack punches out the other player at a frat dance party, which causes a scandal and gets Jack the boot.
Before leaving for New York, Jack talks his girl into giving him her virginity, promising to marry her, and leaving her in the morning a ruined girl, his final act of defiance against the conservative social and political environment that has always treated him like a slug, a guy without a rich family, a grunt on the G.I. Bill.
He heads to New York because he has a notion–like a number of Block’s male characters, such as in Shame Dame–of becoming a writer. New York is the place to go, right?
On the way, at a stopover, he “rescues” a damsel in distress he meets in a diner. Her name is Alissa and she tells she needs help getting away from some guy…a guy he later learns is her fiance but is being pushed into the marriage by her rich father. She is running away from the all girls college she hates, and away from the constraints of her family’s wishes for her to be a prim and proper upper class lady…Alissa wants to be a down and dirty tramp, which she shows Johnny in bed.
In New York, they share a hotel room and later an apartment in Greenwich Village (one of Block/Shaw/Lord’s favorite settings). They agree on an “open” relationship — they share a bed, a pad, but no ties, they can have other lovers, they can come and go, etc. Sounds ideal? Then she talk marriage…and then they start to party with beatnik-types they meet, drinking wine in large amounts, doing reefer madness sex, and snorting powder heroin.
At one strange gathering, beatniks pound on bongos while a large man whips a naked girl in what seems to be Artaud’s theater of cruelty:
He was gross. A fat, gross, bearded man, short and muscular, but with a paunch and a bare hairy chest. His beard was black and he wore a pair of tights which fitted into tall black boots that might have been hooves,. When he grinned his teeth were white, completing the appearance of a satyr. He was ugly and repulsive, yet he was completely masculine. He was Pan, Satan, De Sade, and a beer-paunched TV wrestler all in one.
And he had a whip.
The whip was coiled like a blacksnake and attached to his belt, and it had the appearance of evil.
I watched, fascinated.
The girl seemed oblivious to his presence. She posed, smiling gaily, in a stance of pure innocence…
And then he moved closer. (pp. 76-77)
Hence the cover art!
Then Alissa vanishes, says she’ll be gone for a few days, then a week or two..he has no idea where she is, who she’s with. It drives him nuts although he realizes this was their agreement. He tries to sit down and write. Someone told him to try the confessional magazines, there are so many of those pulps and it’s a decent-paying market. After studying some of confessionals, he writes a 15-page story called “Bride of a Beatnik” that he later sells for $50.
While Alissa is gone, he has other women in his bed — an intellectual beatnik girl, a “negress” hooker he meets on the street…he also crosses paths with a wealthy woman, Linda, in her 30s, who pays him for sex, $100 a night, because she likes buying things, and she gets bored with men; after a month, she is bored with Johnny…
And still Alissa has not returned…he realizes he may be in love with Alissa he misses her so much. To dull the pain, he scores some heroin and starts to mainline. Then he finds out the person Alissa has been with is a woman, a lesbian, and the two are lovers…
Hooked on heroin and needing money, he moves in with Linda and becomes her sex slave, every day shooting the drug and becoming more a slave to it than to the rich woman…
And he crawls through the underbelly of the Village when he needs to re-supply his herin stash, going weak — no longer the tough college football player, but an aging junk addict…
The descriptions of heroin need and withdrawal are horrid, reminding me of what happens at the end of Mona, making me wonder just how much Block knew of heroin addiction because the writing rings too true.
A good novel? Yes. Not Block’s best for his early years, but not his worst either, and a decent study of urban life in New York in the early 1960s, with some tasty sex scenes tossed in to make it a flippable tawdry sleaze book…
I give it a B, and rcommend it to Block and Cornith fans.