by Denis Johnson
How to even begin to describe a writer like Denis Johnson? He doesn't make it easy. Any attempt to categorise him is going to lead to a lot of hyphens or a lot of categories. Not only is he a poet, playwright, journalist and novelist; just his fiction has ranged from connected stories detailing the drug-addled exploits of a man everyone calls Fuckhead to his 600+ page, National Book Award-winning, Vietnam opus, Tree of Smoke. You never quite know what he's going to do next, so I shouldn't really have been surprised to find that his latest novel, originally serialised in Playboy, is a noir thriller with a gambling addicted barbershop singer at its centre. The blood red cover should have given a clue of course and the US edition below makes it even more obvious that this is a book that takes great pleasure from guns, the wounds they cause and the men (and women) who like to carry them.
Jimmy Luntz is the harmoniser with big debts to a man named Juarez. When he is picked up by the big man's goon, Gambol, he knows he is only moments away from having his legs broken. So he shoots Gambol in the leg (that wound described as 'the purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh.') and leaves him to die, taking his wallet and car.
Anita Desilvera is an alcoholic, framed by her now ex-husband, a county prosecutor, for embezzling $2.3million. She happens to spot Luntz by the Feather River when he is discarding the gun used to shoot Gambol, humorously describing him thus: 'He wasn't wearing a Hawaiin shirt at the moment but undoubtedly possessed several.' The two of them meet later in a motel bar and after an evening of karaoke and alcohol the fall into bed with one another and hook up for a ride towards their own forms of vengeance.
Gambol meanwhile has been pulled from the culvert in which he was bleeding to death by Mary, 'a hefty blond', who nurses him back to health with what you might call extra-curricular therapy. He dreams of finishing of Luntz and it isn't long before he is on his trail once more. He is one of those enforcers from the long line of heavies with distinguishing marks, his particular infamy being a predilection for consuming his foe's testicles. Johnson also tries to make something more of him through his relationship with Mary but he's a thoroughly repellent piece of work.
In fact you'd be hard pressed to have sympathy for anyone in this novel, except perhaps one couple caught up in Luntz's wake. The enjoyment of course comes from the style and the thrill of the chase. Luntz explains the appeal and the terror of it all.
"You brush against these people, you know? Just brush up - and it's an electric thing, you get some juice from it, you feel like you've got some balls, but - these people are hard."
In what was only ever going to be a slight novel Johnson's writing keeps things interesting, Luntz's vision when being strangled 'turned a brilliant brown, then a mellow purple, then a beautiful color he'd never seen before in which he had everything he needed and all the time in the world to decide what came next', and with all the violence he finds unique ways to illustrate those moments at life's margins. He's always been good at dialogue but his work as a playwright has been helping him to hone that skill still further (He also studied under Raymond Carver himself at the Iowa Writer's Workshop). Above that though he manages to add something enigmatic to the mix, to find poetry even in and amongst a bunch of criminals, losers and alcoholics.
"The dead come back. Death isn't the end."
"Let's be optimistic," he said, " and assume that's bullshit."
"At night you can see them standing across the river."
"That sounds like the DTs." He reached for the pocket in his too-large flannel shirt - Capra's maybe, or Sally's - and handed her the half pint of vodka. "Have a party."
She unscrewed the cap. "If you know the crossing place," she said, "you can block their way." She looked like a child in an older brother's clothes. She turned the bottle up and wrapped her lips around its neck.