A Lesser Known Lawrence Block Novel: No Score
A review by Rich Horton
This week I’m covering a novel by a well-known writer of crime fiction, Lawrence Block. Block is best known – and quite well known – for two long running series, one about alcoholic private investigator Matthew Scudder and the other about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Books from both series have become movies. I’d been meaning to try one of his novels for a long time, but the final push came when I read a post at Black Gate by Bob Byrne (here) touting a couple of his mysteries about Chip Harrison. I figured I’d start at the beginning of the series.
So what is No Score? Well, on the face of it, it’s a grim realistic novel about the sad life of a young man orphaned by the murder-suicide of his parents. He is expelled from school, ends up homeless in Chicago with $21 in his pocket, spends months living on a couch in his boss’s apartment – and his boss is a low-rent pornographer. Leaving that situation, he spends time as part of a traveling sales team for a termite extermination firm, barely escapes arrest for fraud and statutory rape, switches to grueling migrant farm work, and finally lands in Upstate New York, working a seasonal job in a car wash, where a man shoots him in a case of mistaken identity. Oh, and the whole time he’s trying to lose his virginity, and failing. (The statutory rape, in his case, was not quite consummated.)
Pretty dark stuff, eh?
Well, as you’ve no doubt guessed, this isn’t a grim novel at all, though my description isn’t wrong – the life of the 17-year old protagonist, Chip Harrison, really is pretty desperate. But the book is very funny indeed. It was originally published as by “Chip Harrison”, and the conceit from the start is that Chip is writing the book, while nearly starving on a diet of sardines and stale bread, for what reason we don’t know. It opens with Chip in bed with a strikingly beautiful young woman, on the cusp of finally losing his cherry – when a man busts into the room, puts a gun to Chip’s head, and pulls the trigger.
Follows a flashback to a few months before, when Chip, attending a less than prestigious private school, learns that his parents are dead, just as the police were closing in on them. It seems they were con artists. There is no money, so his school cold-heartedly expels him, months from graduation. He hitchhikes to Chicago, where the only job he can find is passing out advertising slips for a street photographer. Who turns out to make most of his money shooting provocative pictures of his wife.
All along we’ve known that Chip, like many a 17-year old, is obsessed with losing his virginity. He becomes fascinated with the photographer’s beautiful wife, especially after he is recruited to serve as the male subject for some of the photo shoots … but while she is willing to do a great deal with him, she won’t go all the way. And so it continues, as Chip gravitates to the other dead-end jobs mentioned – he seems to have a great deal of success dating girls who won’t put out, and none at all with girls who are willing … until Francine – but his rendezvous with her is interrupted as we are told at the start.
Obviously the gun doesn’t kill Chip, and we do learn, as it were, the “epilogue” to his story, and why he’s writing it, and whether or not he finally scores. And in reality, while the novel is to a great extent concerned with two things – some fairly soft porn involving Chip’s various near-misses, and also a lot of comic scenes and observations – it’s also a nicely enough look at Chip growing up, just a bit, and trying to live a slightly more responsible life than his parents … of course, one thing he must learn is that such responsibility needs to apply to relationships with women as well.
Lawrence Block began publishing fiction in the ‘50s, at first soft porn as was at the time somewhat popular in the “pulp paperback” market. (He shared this market with the likes of his close friend Donald Westlake, and with Robert Silverberg, and many other writers with broader reputations in other fields.) Obviously this background influenced No Score. No Score appeared in 1970, and a sequel (Chip Harrison Scores Again) in 1971. By then the joke of Chip’s attempts at “scoring” had perhaps gone a bit stale, and the other two novels in the series, a couple of years later, are more conventional mysteries, with Chip playing Archie Goodwin to a Nero Wolfe-like character. The series ended after four novels, with one later short story. My edition is, I think, a self-published reprint.
It probably isn’t all that representative of Block’s body of work, but I enjoyed it a lot. The soft porn aspect is well enough done, but it’s not the real attraction – the attraction is the comic writing. It’s really a funny and clever short novel. I’ll definitely be finishing the series, and I’m sure I’ll graduate to some of his more prominent work soon enough.