There was Annice...
Bright, curious, full of untried passion, she let Alan drag her into his beat-generation world of parties, jazz, booze, marijuana, and sex.
She was big and blonde and built for love, but she was saving herself for marriage. Until she met her boss. Right from the beginning, Pat knew she'd do anything for him-- anything.
She was the most vulnerable. Men terrified her and for a good reason. When she finally fell in love it was with a woman.
(Back cover blurb, The Girls in 3-B)
And Valerie Taylor...
The author, a published poet, journalist, and writer of pulp fiction. In particular, she wrote the then-popular lesbian pulp fiction. Many of these books were penned by men who, in Taylor's words, "had never knowingly spoke to a lesbian"(Quoted in Keller). Taylor identified, at various times, as bisexual and lesbian. Some of her novels have been reprinted by academic and feminist presses. The Girls in 3-B (1959), her third novel, remains one of the most well-known examples of Drugstore Pulp by a female author.
And my mother...
A reader of books-- often, but not always, literary. Her own interests she supplemented with whatever her friends and fellow nurses were sharing. Unsurprisingly, a couple of the popular Nurse Novels passed through our house. In the late 1960s, I found this one discreetly placed on the bookshelf. I was too young to read it or understand the cover's meek attempt at salaciousness. I thought nothing more of it (returned to the loaner, presumably, a short time later), until I stumbled over the title, decades later. In 2014, I found a cheap first edition in a second-hand store. I suspect it had sat on someone's shelf since some point in the 1960s; the merest attempt to open it caused the spine to crack.
It proved a window to another time.
The novel has three protagonists, Midwestern small town girls who have graduated high school and head to Chicago. One attends college; the others seek jobs. They share the "B" apartment on the third floor of a slightly run-down tenement, and supporting roles in each other's coming-of-age story.
Each girl's plot represents a different pulp subgenre, and each plot subverts at least some of the its subgenre's expectations. Pat gets an Office Romance, of the type a respectable girl might have read in 1959. People would question the reader's taste in literature, but not her moral standards. Pat finds herself drawn to her exciting, but morally dubious boss, and deals with advances from a rather ordinary coworker, the sort of man her mom would like her to date. Her story does not follow the path taken by many romance novels, but it's not overly subversive, and remains the most conventional of the book's plots.
Annice's tale involves exploitation of the beatnik/bohemian lifestyle. Typical of these novels, it features references to Jack Kerouac, marijuana, and free love, with middle-class condemnation of the lifestyle and-- startling for 1959-- a detailed account of a peyote trip. Her story deviates from the pulp norm by focusing on the misogyny so common in supposedly progressive subcultures: the beatnik's freedom too often proved very male-centered, and came at the expense of women and their out-of-wedlock children. This storyline receives the most conventional and miraculous conclusion. It gives voice to some problematic notions of gender behavior, but it acknowledges how women have historically faced limited choices, and condemns the unfair double standard applied to male and female sexuality.
Most surprising may be Barby's story. The novel presents her lesbian relationship in a positive light, and permits a happy ending for the same-sex couple. Typically, the popular Lesbian Novels of the era presented their material both salaciously and negatively. Lesbians characters were expected, in the end, to die, find a Real Man, or both. This story creates sympathy for Barby by revealing the sexual abuse in her past. If this element gives voice to popular conceptions about lesbianism, at least it acknowledges that girls (she is thirteen when the first violation takes place) sometimes are molested, not by alley-lurking rapists, but outwardly respectable men. Of course, on subjects such as same-sex relationships, the pulps often provided an inaccurate education for people. The Girls acknowledges the fact. We see Barby reading a drugstore lesbian novel in order to learn about herself, since all she knows about the topic comes from "Fragments of talk... allusions in books; clinical-sounding magazine articles"(101-102). Interestingly, the girls are all aware of gay men, and the presence of "fairies" in their neighborhood receives mention more than once.
The Girls in 3-B hardly constitutes a revolutionary work of literature, but it proves more literary and less sensationalist than one would expect from period pulp (the salacious elements are ludicrously tame by today's standards). The author has style. Taylor's rushed narrative brakes occasionally to present credible descriptions of the era, of the girls' small-town pasts, and of a lost Chicago, where:
Pigeons flew up to settle on the roofs of the freight sheds, warned by the vibration of the oncoming engine. A group of men were standing around a small bonfire-- why, in August? Burning trash maybe-- two of them leaned on shovels, laughing. One was eating a sandwich out of waxed paper. Between the tracks, grass was growing thin and sparse(17)
If the novel does not entirely break from expected social and generic conventions, it challenges some of them, and provides insight into an era far enough in the past to be foreign, close enough to feel disturbingly familiar.
Keller, Yvonne. "Was it Right to Love Her Brother's Wife So Passionately? Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950–1965." American Quarterly, 2005
Taylor, Valerie. The Girls in 3-B. New York: Crest Books, 1959.