The paperback begins with 38 year-old, married accountant Fred Bauman picking up a stacked female hitchhiker (Reviewer Note: Silverberg is totally a breast man). The young babe is Joanne, and she strikes Fred as a sex-positive kinda gal with an aggressively flirtatious streak. In fact, she teases Fred into such a sexual lather that he forces himself upon her in what we’d call a date-rape by today’s standards.
After their car-bang is fully consummated, Joanne shifts gears and blackmails Fred. She wants $5,000 or she’s going to the cops with a load of his DNA to report his suburban ass for sexual assault. She gives him a couple days to pull the money together before disappearing into the night.
We quickly learn that this isn’t Joanne's first rodeo. In fact, the date-rape-blackmail game is her go-to source of income. Previously, she worked as a prostitute and a dominatrix, but the fake-rape business just pays better. She also has a vibrant, consensual sex life with a hoodlum named Buddy, and Silverberg certainly knows his way around a good 1960s-style sex scene.
There are a handful of side characters and family members in the novel, and Silverberg gives us a peek into each of their secret sex lives. Some of this felt like filler, but it was always well written and compelling. The problem with Gutter Road is that there’s not much of a story arc throughout the novel other than the beginning and the resolution. Otherwise, it’s really just a cycle of sex scenes among the cast of dysfunctional characters.
I will add that the last part of the book finally becomes a crime novel once Fred decides to deal with the problem of Joanne the blackmailer head-on. The climactic sequences are pretty great and in total keeping with the dark, violent, twisty conclusions of the best Manhunt stories from the same era.
Overall, I enjoyed Gutter Road. It was an interesting glimpse into societal norms and taboos from 60 years ago. Even with his early sex books, Silverberg could deliver interesting characters and some damn fine prose with a violent conclusion. I’m glad he and Stark House are making these old novels available.