Small Town by Lawrence Block

by Lanny Gilbert

8 April 2003


No 9/11 Elegy Here, Folks

9/11/2001. A date that will be burned in our national psyche for decades, if not forever. America’s top musicians responded to the date via new songs, as well as a nationally televised program to benefit the firefighters and policemen. Transplanted New Yorkers I know have tried to put into words how they felt on that day and how they’re trying to get along with their lives. Truly, the stage is set for a great writer to deal with 9/11 in a novel.

Lawrence Block, let there be no doubt, is a great writer. He has written over 50 books, spanning the gamut from help books for writers to the various mystery series he has done, hard-boiled crime fiction (the Matthew Scudder series) to not-so-hard-boiled crime (the Bernie Rhodenbarr series). Mr. Block has won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America, a prize whose winners’ list reads like a who’s who of top mystery writers of the past 50-odd years. He has also won the Edgar Award (given by the Mystery Writers of America for best novel of the year) four times. Very few living writers can claim credentials like that.

cover art

Small Town

Lawrence Block

(William Morrow)

All of which makes this book such a puzzle. Given a rich topic like 9/11, I was thinking that a writer of Mr. Block’s caliber would provide a deep, haunting work of fiction that would explore behaviors and reasons for the behaviors of various people touched by 9/11. But all we have here is a series of character sketches of people who are not intriguing, and tiresome descriptions of chance meetings in restaurants or bars, oral sex under restaurant tables, mindless sexual activity that is wince-inducing in its gynecological detail, thins wisps of plot development instead of Mr. Block’s usual intricate plotting, and a villain whose motivations are so improbable and unbelievable that he (and the entire book) simply don’t ring true.

There are some bright spots to the novel. Mr. Block’s always engaging voice and attention to detail in describing places that I’ve never heard about in New York City, such as a street that crosses itself, little hole in the wall restaurants, and other intimate details that only someone who truly lives in (and loves) the city would know are well done.

I’ve done several book reviews now for Popmatters, and this is the first book I’ve had to force myself to finish, which for me was sad, because everything I’ve read of Lawrence Block’s up to this point was very well done and entertaining. I finished his last Matthew Scudder novel in 3 days, and it took me over three weeks to read this book.

Maybe the author is still too shell-shocked by 9/11 to write his “real” 9/11 novel. Or maybe, I feel like my friend who used to tell girls who had performed poorly in the annual high school talent show, “I just didn’t understand it. It must be high art.” It could be that the aimless wandering through life shown by Mr. Block’s characters is exactly how your basic New Yorker is dealing with what happened on 9/11 and that’s what he’s trying to describe to his readers.

I don’t know. I’m just a plain old Southern boy, and maybe it’s art, but I don’t get it.

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