Love Doll by Mel Johnson aka Barry N. Malzberg (Softcover Library, 1968)
Love Doll is an early Malzberg 30,000-word novella that Softcover matched up with one of Orrie Hitt’s last published novels, The Sex Pros. Both are about people in the carnival business, old hat for Hitt, something Malzberg never tackled in any other work.
Love Doll is narrated by Danny Heaven, who owns and runs the traveling freakshow of seven-foot tall men, men without arms, and odd women. He hires a knife act most because of the girl, sexy young Emma. He has his eye on her, and she comes to him for help, says she was once married to her partner, got away, but went back, and she’s afraid for her life. Danny vows to protect her, and she rewards him with her body.
The knife guy., Toby, catches them, and says Danny can have her, she’s a whore, and leaves…but he comes back, with violent intent to take Danny out, recruiting disgruntled employees.
Emma’s been a wild one since a young age:
From thirteenth birthday Emma was Lolita [...] Emma-Lolita discovered early that her body was a weapon, a tool which she could use to reduce men and boys to confused parodies of themselves. Her virginity did not last to her thirteenth birthday. She lost it in a stack of hay, sweet and fragrant, to a farmhand named Harry…
Lolita, my own Lolita…
Emma loved it.
By the time she was fourteen, she had taken almost every available man in town but none had left a mark. (pp. 40-41)
An interesting effort for early Malzberg but the text is uneven. It begins in the present tense and then lapses into past tense 1/4th the way through and for the rest of the story. We’re never quite sure how old Emma is–she’s supposed to be this little Lolita-esque vixen, Danny tells one of carney folk she’s his 15-year-old cousin, but there are references of Emma having been married to Toby for 10 years, so that would make her 24 or 25…
Someone told me — either Malzberg or Malzberg fan Jim Mixx — that a Softcover Library editor re-wrote the ending and that seems to be the case, this doesn’t have a Malzbergian ending but one of those patent sappy romantic endings where all is hell, Danny asks Emma to marry him and she says yes. Danny muses with some irony: “In books, people like us always make it. So we have a chance.” (p. 116)