Off the Old Block

There are a series of short stories I really love, by famed mystery writer Lawrence Block, and they’re all about a character named Keller. The stories were published all over the place, and they’re self-contained, but there’s a specific order to them, and with the collection I own and have owned since slightly after I moved to New York, you can follow the story. I remember I first encountered the character in an issue of Playboy (there IS stuff in there that aren’t nude pictures, honest!), and he stuck with me that I was stunned to find out that there was a whole book of his stories.

Keller is a regular lonely guy in New York who has maybe too much spare time. He watches movies, goes on long walks in Central Park, sees a therapist, and he takes up stamp-collecting at one point. Every once in a while, maybe once a month, he gets a phone call, he takes a train to Upstate New York, talks to his boss, and flies out somewhere in the United States, and murders someone. He’s not an action-movie hitman by any means. He very rarely uses a gun, he’s not a martial artist, he’s not insane, and he doesn’t kill only “bad people.” He just very efficiently figures out how to get into someone’s comfort zone and exterminate them, no questions asked.

As someone who had been raised on Tarantino movies and a lot of the crime dramas from the nineties, it was very easy for me to put aside the horrible job this character has and get to know him personally. Maybe it was that compartmentalizing I’m pretty good at. Either way, I didn’t think much about it. He’s an introvert with a rich inner life, like me, only instead of fixing spreadsheets, he killed people, and I was able to identify with him.

Around the time I got the book, I was dating a wonderful artist in Brooklyn, and she was interested in whatever I was interested in, so she watched all my favorite movies and read all my favorite books, yet she has a very low violence threshold. She really wrestled with the book because she liked Keller, but what he did was monstrous, and she struggled to reconcile that.

I’m rereading the book, trying to inspire myself to write my next novel, now that I’ve finished the one I put aside to write my screenplay, as well as the one I put aside to write the one I put aside for the screenplay, and I’m remembering something that pissed this girlfriend off about the book more than any of the murders did. In one story, Keller gets a dog, and in a subsequent story, he later gets a dog-walker. Then, in another story, he and the dog-walker hook up. One story after that, Keller gets an assignment and takes care of it, going through all the motions, until the very end, where he tells someone she left him, and she took the dog.

This infuriated my girlfriend. Why did he take twenty-five pages to acknowledge that his relationship had ended? Why was he not thinking about it and mourning it that whole week he was out of town and killing someone? Why did he not talk to anyone about it? And yet for me, this seemed to be the natural thing. This is before “compartmentalizing” became a word that people used, but what was wrong with filing grief away? There was an unexpected loss in your life, and you might as well start moving forward as soon as you can instead of dwelling on it. It’s how I handled my breakup with her, and boy did that cause problems post-relationship (she is the one ex who will never talk to me ever again—all of the others, even with their grievances, acknowledge me). It’s also how I handled my divorce. The grief spilled out sometimes, mostly because of the far-reaching financial ramifications, but mostly it was tucked away where it wouldn’t interfere with me.

I am willing to acknowledge that my muted reaction to the divorce probably had to do with the truckloads of lithium I’m on, but there was no excuse for how I reacted in 2002. (Which was twenty years ago. Jesus.) I also know that I almost had a friend break up with me last year, and I did not compartmentalize at all. I yelled, I screamed, I begged, so I’m not incapable of feeling grief. Men are taught not to feel emotions other than anger, so I wonder how much of that had to do with Keller’s reaction to that breakup, as well as mine. I haven’t lost anyone close to me in years—what’s going to be my reaction when it inevitably happens?

I haven’t made it to the offending story yet; Keller has just met the dog-walker, and they are just friendly right now. I haven’t read this book in over twenty years, so I wonder how I’m going to see it. Will I identify with Keller’s stiff upper lip, or will I be angry at him like she was, all that time ago.

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