In 1958, Lawrence Block was a 20-year-old pulp fiction writer living in New York City. Years before he would become acknowledged as one of America’s greatest living authors, Block --- like many others such as Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake --- was receiving his higher education training in storytelling through the pulps.
The pulp formula was to keep people turning the pages of these cheap little paperbacks. Often, the way to do that was with copious amounts of blood and sex. The year 1958 was a long way from today when pornography is a mouse click and weak will away, so the best pulp writers had to write about sex by taking it right to the line of acceptability and possible censorship. That line could be malleable.
To exist as a pulp writer, you had to bang out the words fast and then move on. Block has probably written well over 150 books, many of the early ones under pseudonyms. BORDERLINE was such a book. Block wrote it, presumably made a few bucks off it and promptly forgot about it. He never gave it a second thought, and the book was soon lost seemingly forever. Pulps were not designed to be literature.
Lost, that is, until now. BORDERLINE is being published for the first time in half a century and under its author’s real name. It is releasing under the banner of the one publishing house dedicated to keeping pulp fiction alive, Hard Case Crime. As usual, they do a great job with it, especially here, including three of Block’s early short stories from the pulps as well.
BORDERLINE is a terrific read. It is pulp fiction and pure noir at its best, and a portrait of a great author as a young man showing off his incredible talent. It is an important addition to Block’s library and a must read for his fans.
1958 might have been the end of President Eisenhower’s second term, but America was not the tranquil postwar myth it is often portrayed to be. The border area between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico was where Americans went to gamble, get drunk, smoke a lot of dope, get lucky, buy dirty pictures and maybe take in a live sex show. In a country supposedly complacent and satiated after the Great Depression and Second World War, Juarez was Sin City close to home.
"BORDERLINE is a terrific read. It is pulp fiction and pure noir at its best, and a portrait of a great author as a young man showing off his incredible talent."
And it was, believe it or not, a more innocent place, comparatively speaking. This is decades before Juarez became the front lines and no man’s land of the real drug war. Between 2007 and 2011, more than 9,000 people were killed there, often in the most gruesome fashion. The great journalist Charles Bowden chronicled this in his excellent book, MURDER CITY: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. I highly recommend that work.
But that is journalism. Block was writing fiction. And he set it in a time when characters would say, “Yeah, I’m hip to that scene” and “you’ll dig it.” But even then, while drug cartels were not chopping off heads --- yet --- Block captures a sense of menace and lawlessness about Juarez. One of his characters says, “Excitement --- that was her word, that was what she wanted. He told her that Juarez was a good place for it, which was true enough. It was a perfect place. There were a hundred different kinds of sex, a dozen places to gamble, a million ways to get high. The cops let you alone. You got high and got drunk and got picked and got laid, and when you were done you crawled across the border and everything was sane again.”
Maybe. Into this world, Block introduces five desperate characters, each of whom has come to Juarez for their own reason. They, in a true noir random universe, will collide and bounce off each other and learn the true noir lesson: intentions don’t count in life. You cross some borders, and there is no way back, no way out.
But even in his 20s, Block was great enough as a writer not to make this the stereotypical Juarez story about stupid college kids looking to lose their virginity with cheap whores. There is Meg --- think Marilyn Monroe in Misfits --- just granted a Mexican divorce, ending a four-year marriage and looking to “let herself go” with her “bundle of expense money” from her ex’s lawyer before heading back to boring Illinois. She will not find Clark Gable in this story.
Then there is Lily, a 17-year-old runaway, “a few million miles from virginity.” Pimped out by her friends in Dallas, she is on the run again, hitchhiking her way to El Paso. She has to trade sex for the ride. She is already spiraling down into the life when, broke, she meets up in Juarez with Cassie, a hip redhead who convinces her to take a job with her doing a lesbian scene in a live sex show. But Cassie is not just acting. She has her own agenda with Lily.
Marty might be the most sensible character here. He is a professional gambler by trade and resident of El Paso. He is also the modern existential man, separated from everything and everybody, the loner who can spend days at the poker table and stay detached enough to win big. He has nobody and nobody has him, and he likes it that way. Then there is Weaver, now a familiar feature in crime fiction as the ubiquitous knife-wielding serial killer. But here he is a simple madman and pervert, pleased with the idea of the media turning him into a celebrity, happy when his photo makes the papers.
BORDERLINE is a book that is almost vicious in its impact. While you know things can’t end well in this noir hell, the conclusion will still shock you, stay with you and fill you with regret. Block makes you care about these damaged, discarded and alienated people, which is quite a feat. The sex scenes alone are worth it, as they are decades ahead of their time. I spent over 16 years in pulp magazines, and was amazed and delighted by how well they worked.
As a 20-year-old, Block proved he could tell a story that would last forever. This is how pulp becomes literature. We are lucky that Hard Case Crime brought it back for us to enjoy.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on May 23, 2014