It’s really too early to tell, but it appears that one of
my favorite books of 2008 is one that was originally published in
1961. Re-released by Hard Case Crime, A DIET OF TREACLE by Lawrence
Block is a title worth re-reading --- or discovering for the very
The novel is set in mid-20th century Greenwich Village during what
has been called the “Beat” era. Glamorized by the
mainstream media, the reality for most was far darker and seedier
than the down-at-the-heels glamour that was imputed to it.
Block focuses on that dark side with a laser-like aim, injecting a
set of characters into a web of excess of sex, drugs and violence
with a subtle undercurrent of world-weary nihilism.
There are three principals in A DIET OF TREACLE, somewhat different
people whose lives intersect with dire results. Joe Milani is a
Korean War veteran who is attending college in New York on the G.I.
Bill, and doing well, when he abruptly terminates his studies and
sinks into the idle Beat lifestyle. He is living with, and
supported by, Leon “Shank” Maston, a quietly
sociopathic marijuana dealer who is content with the living
arrangement for reasons never quite made clear (there are some
mild, though not overt, homosexual overtones to their
The dynamic between the two men changes when Milani meets Anita
Carbone, a college student living in “wop Harlem” with
her grandmother. Carbone is the stereotypical good girl (she
agonizes about smoking on a public street), and her life appears to
be all planned out. She is on her way to getting a degree and is in
some state of pre-engagement to a man on the fast track to success.
However, she is bored and, as a result, is attracted to Milani, who
is everything her boyfriend is not. Carbone abruptly moves in with
Milani and Maston, embracing the Beat lifestyle wholeheartedly and
without reservation. Interestingly enough, it is Maston, not
Milani, who changes, and not for the good.
Maston begins dealing heroin, in addition to the marijuana he
previously had been selling, and his psychopathic tendencies move
even farther to the forefront of his personality, culminating in an
angry and shocking encounter that will have lasting repercussions
for the three of them. His impulsive actions put the trio suddenly
on the run, involving them in a dilemma from which there seems to
be no escape --- until Milani and Carbone find one that is as
obvious as it is unexpected.
Block has appeared to be incapable of writing badly, yet A DIET OF
TREACLE is stunning on so many levels --- its characterization, its
setting, its plotting --- as to exist in a class all by itself. It
is hard to believe that this work did not remain in print since its
initial publication. So it is a tribute to Hard Case Crime that
it’s available again, hopefully for good this time.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 29, 2010