The Kitschies' Steampunk Evening
PK Interview: Lev Grossman

New Releases: Getting Off by Lawrence Block and Jill Emerson

Getting OffGetting Off (2011) is aptly billed as "a novel of sex and violence". The story follows Kit Tolliver, serial killer and sex fiend, as she cuts a swathe (figuratively and literally) across America.

Kit is a professional killer. She's not a hitman or assassin; hers is a simpler and less glamorous calling, she's driven to kill. As the book sets up, this doesn't seem to bother her. Kit seduces and removes one lover after another with chilly detachment. She never gives her real name, never puts down roots and never stays long after the deed is done. Kit's enough of a natural actor that she can easily feign a thousand competencies (my favorite is her impression of an MBA) and enough of a beauty that no one ever questions her presence. She's got a good (bad) thing going for her and she knows it.

Kit lives in a setting straight out of Jim Thompson - or, as a more contemporary comprison, Bret Easton Ellis. There's very little that's good or pure. Kit's not heroic and nor is she rational. But, as the reader quickly learns, nor is anyone else. The difference is, unlike the rest of the world, Kit knows she's crazy.

In the introductory chapters, Kit's setting up to seduce and kill her prey. But when she wakes up in bed with him the next morning, she knows something's gone wrong - she never sleeps with them, normally she's two states away by sunrise. She pieces together that she's been, somewhat ironically, rufied. Immediately, the reader is thrown into the amoral realm of Mr. Block's creation - where Kit is, at the very least, the monster on the reader's side.

Getting Off is largely a series of short episodes, linked by Kit's need to clean the slate. She's picked up the obsession - again, a self-acknowledged uncontrollable urge - to clean up after herself. Somewhere out there, a handful of men have lived through a night with her. The date rapist from the introductory chapters, a high school boyfriend who left town, a one-afternoon-stand that slunk out the door and a soldier on his way to Iraq. Kit tracks them down one at a time, all the while realising that she's created a rod for her own back. Or, more appropriately, a countdown for her own crazy.

Again like a character from Thompson or Ellis, Kit is in a downward spiral. As chilly as she may seem, her actions are growing more and more out of her own control. She develops an attachment - a fondness for a female roommate that she met on one of her many fleeting visits. Soon, Kit is calling Rita at all hours, from all over the country - and their relationship grows steamier as well. Kit knows that she's bound for self-destruction and can't see if Rita is her way out. Worse, Kit worries that her own lethal impulses will mean the death of someone she actually cares about. As she continues to tick names off her list, a reckoning becomes inevitable. Kit is headed for death or some sort of miraculous (and admittedly undeserved) redemption, and, as prompt or angel, Rita will be involved.

The death/redemption either/or assumption severely underestimates Mr. Block's talent as a storyteller. The overarching plot, Kit's list, ends in a strangely satisfying and thoroughly unexpected climax. On a more episodic level, each of Kit's encounters reveals a new surprise and a new twist - from the lustily cinematic (Kit runs into another pair of serial killers) to the oddly touching (Kit's reunion with her soldier lover). Mr. Block never tries to pretend that Kit is some sort of higher agent or "good guy" - but he does position her as a karmic catalyst. Kit is inhuman and, definitionally, is able to do what ordinary people can't do. In many cases, that means meting out, if not justice, a sort of appropriately ironic conclusion.

It is worth noting that Getting Off is also a provocative (perhaps deliberately so) book. There's a complete absence of traditional moral compasses - no cop on Kit's trail, no whiskey-soaked-but-ultimately-chivalric private eyes. Kit puts Rita on a pedestal, but their relationship is based on phone sex and shared disappointment. Which, the book posits, may be as good as it gets... Moreover, stylistically, Getting Off is about as graphic as you might expect. This is a novel about sex and violence, readers should be prepared for plenty of both. Kit sees both as mechanical compulsions, so expect less titillation and more functional realism.

It takes a writer of Mr. Block's caliber to pull off a book like Getting Off without it being either sordid or clunky. This is a manipulative and horrifyingly insightful book, depicting a feral and dirty modern world where only those who wholly embrace their insanity can succeed. Kit is remarkable for being both terrifying and charming. The reader is forced to respect her for her skill and her self-awareness, even while recoiling from her every action. Ultimately, Kit faces neither redemption or destruction, but finds a third path that only reinforces the book's blackly comedic tone. 

A post-script with some fun-facts. The cover, only barely safe for work, is by Gregory Manchess, and bless Hard Case Crime for putting it on a full-sized hardcover. The book is technically co-written by Lawrence Block and Jill Emerson. The latter is one of his pseudonyms. Ms. Emerson got her start in the Sixties with paperbacks for the ever-entertaining Midwood Press, and has made a few, infrequent literary appearances since. In a lovely piece of bonkersness, Mr. Block and Ms. Emerson have interviewed one another about Getting Off (Ms. Emerson, fittingly, is a little miffed that her name is in such small print).

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By Jared (@pornokitsch) who still has quite a few to go...

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