Block, Lawrence. Getting Off.

London: Titan Books, 2011.

It’s not uncommon to discover that writers who are now well-known, even multiple award-winners, had to struggle to pay the bills when they first began their careers. Block was one of them fifty years ago, cranking out adventure stories for the magazines and erotica for the specialty houses (especially of the lesbian persuasion, for some reason), and doing most of it under a series of noms-de-plume so as to protect the literary reputation of his more serious work.

Among those were seven novels written as “Jill Emerson.” Now Block has revisited that earlier phase of his professional life (just for the hell of it, I expect), and while the subject matter may startle his less experienced fans, they’ll find the style and the characters every bit as professional as any Matt Scudder yarn.

The young woman who here narrates the story of her life started out as Katherine Tolliver, known as “Kit,” but she hasn’t used that name for several years. In fact, she adopts names and backgrounds and biographies and discards them as needed, with no reluctance. What she does is, she picks up guys. And sleeps with them. And then kills them. And moves on to another town, and does it all over again. She takes their money when they have any handy, and she works at minimum-wage jobs when she has to, but mostly she kills the men she has sex with, and she has become practiced and methodical about it. What drives her to this sociopathic occupation, we find out as she tells the reader about her horrific early life, and she’s certainly self-aware — but that isn’t going to stop her. Now, though, she thinks about the handful of men whom she wasn’t able to remove from the world, for one reason or another, and she decides she needs to go back and tidy up. Maybe if every man she ever had sex with is dead, she can somehow regain her virginity.

And that’s Kit’s quest — to hunt down her four or five surviving sex partners. But one of them was deployed overseas the next day, and one of them is now in prison (because of her, actually, though he doesn’t realize it), and one of them was an out-of-town businessman who was only in the city for a convention, and whose real name she doesn’t know, and so on. It’s not going to be an easy mission to complete, but what else does she have to do with her life? And while she’s hunting down one of her targets in Washington State, she rents a room temporarily and begins to develop a relationship with her young landlady, which blossoms to the point where she begins to consider the novelty of a lesbian fling — or perhaps even something more serious and long-lasting — but how can she be sure she won’t feel the need to also kill any woman she might have sex with? Well, there ought to be ways of testing that possibility, right?

Block isn’t capable of writing a bad book, not anymore, and while the theme and the occasional language and uncensored descriptive scenes in this one will not be to everyone’s taste, it’s a very well done story. Lots of blackly dry humor, too. It’s interesting to see what a very professional writer can come up with when he revisits a much earlier stage in his career. Too bad it’s unlikely ever to be made into a film. . . .

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