Thursday, July 7, 2016

Horizontal Woman by Barry Malzberg

“You see, Miss Moore,” Mandleman says, “let me, if I may, explain to you a few basic facts and so on and then your mind will be set at ease and there will be no difficulty. It is impossible to maintain these buildings properly. These people are pigs; the way they live is indescribable. They are not like you and me but are rather totally undisciplined and on a level of savagery.”
In our last episode we talked about a sex novel by Barry Malzberg which, instead of glorifying sexual promiscuity and celebrating sexual liberation, portrayed sex as degrading, unfulfilling and exploitative. Well, here's another Malzberg paperback sex novel, this one from 1972 and available currently as an e-book from Prologue Books, Horizontal Woman.  Let's see if our buddy Barry takes a different tack in this one.

(Check out the blog Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books for a different take on Horizontal Woman and an idea of what the 1972 edition, and a 1977 reissue under the title Social Worker, looked like.)

Elizabeth Moore is a 23-year-old in 1964 who, after college (at "Beloit University") moved from the MidWest to Brooklyn to work for the New York City welfare administration. An "investigator" who visits recipients of public aid in their homes and throws around a lot of Freudian theory and jargon ("decompensated" seems to be her favorite word), she has her own theories and methods of how to lift her clients out of poverty--she has sex with them to raise their self esteem!
...helping her clients to get better so that they could recover their self esteem and get off relief and assume a higher socio-economic level and begin to lead normal middle-class lives.
Three clients who receive this innovative and much-welcomed service from the comely Miss Moore are the focus of the narrative. We've got Puerto Rican father of about a half dozen kids, Felipe Morales, who hasn't worked for fifteen years due to a self-diagnosed heart condition (no doctor has ever been able to diagnose this condition.)  There's 18-year old African-American (the text says "Negro") William Buckingham III, who starts pimping Moore out to his friends after his third or fourth bout of intercourse with her. And there's Rabbi Schnitzler, a Lubavitcher and father of 13, who becomes ridden with guilt after his first session with Elizabeth and actually confesses to his wife (who, incidentally, is pregnant with number 14.)

Another important character is Elizabeth's supervisor, James Oved, a black man who, when he isn't upbraiding her for being too soft on the clients ("you letting those cats take you over the coals with a lot of lies and old bullshit")--which is most of the time--is always aggressively asking her out and calling her a "prejudiced chick" when she turns him down.

Horizontal Woman is an exploration of liberal guilt and an indictment of the welfare state. And in the same way you might say that Everything Happened to Susan was about gender and relationships between men and women, Horizontal Woman could be said to be about race and ethnicity and relationships between blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, etc.

Malzberg does not paint Morales, Buckingham (Moore calls him "Willie"), and Schnitzler as sympathetic; they are obviously poor due to laziness and foolishness and not due to racism or oppression or bad luck or whatever. They are not above lying to Moore or any other government agent to get more benefits, and we witness other welfare recipients ("the relief class") casually throwing trash around their neighborhoods and acting boorishly. Willie, apparently, is a burglar, among other things. For her part, while Moore claims to care about them, she (like the entire government apparatus) treats the poor not like equal citizens, but contemptuously and condescendingly, like they are "retarded" children ("at this socio-economic level, how subtle can you be?" she wonders at one point.)  She tells Schnitzler his religion is silly and should be abandoned, and when confronted by a gang of Willie's friends, admits to herself that black youths all look the same to her.

A pivotal scene in the middle of the novel is a flashback that shows why Moore has taken up her bizarre and risky policy of having sex with her clients. When she confronted a Jewish landlord, Holocaust survivor Irving Mandleman, over the terrible conditions in which his welfare recipient tenants live, Mandeman explains that the tenants are to blame for their poor living conditions because they are savages and pigs (see above) and that the only person who really cares about these people is Mandleman himself!  He keeps them alive even though he loses money by sheltering them (the taxpayers pay their rent, of course, but it doesn't cover Mandleman's bills.)
"The Mayor's office is not populated with people who would take them into their homes for bed and board.  The liberal politicians are for relief only because giving them relief will keep them at a distance and keep the society from crumbling."
Mandelman asserts that even Moore doesn't really care about the poor: "you are so industrious and so dedicated but the fact is that you are only reacting to your own disgust.  You have no more feeling for these people than the office of the Mayor, believe me."  Moore starts her insane policy of having sex with her clients that very day as a way of proving to herself that she does care.

In the final third of the book, Oved, calling her a "dirty little Jewish cunt," tells Moore she is being transferred to the Bronx.  Her last visits to her clients are disastrous. Morales, crying out "Morales not a pig or a chicken, he a man," rapes her, Willie's mother threatens her with a broom ("You smart white lucky I don't take a knife to you") and Willie reveals to her he has "the clap."  When she gets back to the building where her office is she finds that hundreds of Hasidim have laid siege to the place, looking for her; the last sentence of the book leaves you to wonder if she escapes with her life.

This is another Malzberg book about which I have to warn readers who may be easily offended, it being full of unflattering stereotypes. There's the vulgar and oversexed Negroes, religious people who breed like rabbits, the ethnocentric ("there are a few orthodox Jews in these tenements which, I agree, somewhat lifts the level of tenancy") Jewish slumlord, and the white liberal who has jungle fever (though Elizabeth claims "her passions in fornication with the clients have been purely on the professional level....")

Horizontal Woman is not as funny as Everything Happened to Susan, but it is a better novel. Elizabeth Moore is a better character than Susan; not only does she have an interesting psychology, but she has agency and makes important decisions that drive the narrative, whereas Susan was just a passive victim.  Morales, Willie, Schnitzler, Mandleman and Oved all inspire some feeling in the reader, unlike the flat caricatures we found in Everything Happened to Susan.  I actually think Malzberg's little work here fits into the same genre or tradition of Jewish-American writing that addresses the issue of Jewish and African-American life in the New York-New Jersey area in which reside Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. And there are some good jokes, and it is also just possible someone might find the sex in this book to be titillating, particularly someone into exhibitionism, group sex, voyeurism, and/or interracial sex.

A quick read that is worth a look for Malzberg fans and those interested in subversive (what today we would call "politically incorrect") vintage paperbacks.

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