Horizontal Woman/The Social Worker by Barry Malzberg (Leisure Books, 1972; 197

This dark and comic “sex” novel was published in 1972 by Leisure as Horizontal Woman and reissued in 1977 as The Social Worker, probably the more absurd of the two titles.

After grauating college and working on selling his writing, Barry N. Malzberg worked for about a year as a social worker in the New York City Welfare Department, covering Brooklyn.  Most likely he hated it, caught in the dull insanity of the government system.  He did get a few books and stories out of it, notably The Day of the Burning, a novel that seems to be about alien invasion and world destruction but is about the collapse of one man’s mind and perhaps the welfare system itself.

In Horizontal Woman/The Social Worker, we meet Elizabeth Moore, who decides to use her body to soothe and comfort her clients, as she goes from door to door, updating her caseload.  What?  you say: This is a porn novel?  Softcore?  Sex? Sleaze?

Yes and no. It’s a Barry Malzberg sex novel, which means the sex is not, well, erotic, but it is dirty and slimey.  This is not exactly a left-hander; it’s a combination of the absurd rompings of a female a la Terry Southern’s Candy and the existential angst of Kafka and Camus…

She wants to comfort her unfortuante clients who are on “Home Relief” (welfare, food stamps) because she knows they have suffered, they hurt, they are lonely — she indeed takes her social work toward Artaud’s theater of the absurd — or maybe this is theater of cruelty?  She

moans, closes her eyes, feels the Morales dong wedge into her with terrific force.  What an urge to breed still exists in this Hime Relief case: she has nevr been able to judge, until this joyously unsprung moment, the pain, the greed, the sheer social dislocation of the man […] The thing is to comfort him, he has suffered so much, he has deserved so much better. (pp. 7-9)

Sex is therapy in her twisted mind.  This horizontal lady has

good thighs, good breasts, a striking if somewhat affecting face […] her best feature is her ciompassion and she wears it like armor […] listening with amusement some of the remarks which she hears driftng toward her from men muttering in storefronts. Hey baby, they are saying out of their ignorance and desire, do you want to fuck?  Dion, would you like to fuck that and so on and so forth; so highly limited and they will nver understand her compassion.  From compassion she could reach out to them, even the ugliest to her and say, “If only fucking could solve your problems; if only I could fuck you right here and now to prove to you that the basic structureof your life is unteneable and this cheap lust of yours merely an excuse against coming to grip with it,” but she cannot; she knows she cannot because she must save what she has for her caseload… (pp. 21-22)

So she can only have sex with her clients, not strange men in the street, as much as she might like to and “help” them.  Is she like the hooker with a heart of gold, is she a nympho, or is she merely insane?  Probably all three, in the Malzberg universe.

What was Malzberg thinking when he wrote this?  Was he making commentray on the welfare system and the end of the 1960s, or was it just fun tyoing for a $1500 paycheck from Leisure Books?

Whatever reason, Malzberg’s erotic fiction — and his SF — has often been misunderstood like Elizabeth’s good natured intentions to her clients.  Or maybe Malzberg was getting a kick out of fucking with his readers’ minds.  Who the hell writes a sex novel about a welfare social worker who has a pussy itch?

She wanders through New York and like Candy or even Candide, she has a series of encounters, adventures, and disconnections of the sexual kind.  She feels everyone around her is suffering “social dislocation” — attempts at using sex and pick ups to find meaning, to find solace, but the sex only makes people more distant. Going home with Harry, a “creative writer,” and listening to all his grand literary plans, his studio covered in unpublished and rejected novel manuscripts, and letting Harry do his thing as she premature ejaculating “all over her thighs and waist” she thinks:

At this socioeconomic level, sex must be the grubiest and dirtiest relationship going on in all of New York City. (p. 35)

A curious novel and a recommended one.  All y’all should all read Malzberg! And his endings — well, he always has the best of bleak and ironic endings, one of my favorite things I like about his work, and I won’t give away the ending here but let’s just say it has connotations of Biblical prophecy, Orthodox Jews, and The Book of Revelations.

But doesn’t the world, and sometimes the Universe, often end in flames and destruction in many a-Malzbergian yarn?

One Response to “Horizontal Woman/The Social Worker by Barry Malzberg (Leisure Books, 1972; 197”

  1. Justin T Turner Says:

    What a great site! I have never read any extended material on the Malzberg non sci-fi material – I thought I was the only person in the world who followed that era of Malzberg’s writings. If you are at all interested, I can scan covers of what I have or give you any publication info on what I have (I think I have all of these titles, in one edition or another, except : Campus Doll, Chained, Kiss and Run, Nympho Nurse). You don’t have extras of those 4 do you?
    Cheers
    Justin Turner

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