The American writer Denis Johnson works in an unnameable genre, pitched somewhere between the thriller and the sermon. In his loopy novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which is set at the beginning of the 1980s, Leonard English, draft dodger and failed suicide, arrives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Like many of Johnson’s heroes, English is seeking a fresh start, a second – or third – chance. He spends his time working on adultery and runaway cases for a private investigator, but his mind is plainly directed towards loftier matters; and the novel, tracking his connections, slides easily from the parochial to the cosmic – “Route 6 stood for the end of everything” – and the ephemeral to the eternal: “In the overheated lyrics of rock’n’roll he often heard the sorrows and pronouncements of a jilted, effeminate Jehovah.”
Johnson’s novels are characterised by such achievements in swift promiscuity. His protagonists, Jesus figures lacking the necessary paternal aid, are half pilgrim, half shaggy dog, and his moody prose is thrillingly unembarrassable: He was bent over nearly double and dragging his shadow behind him. It scraped enormously over the road, turning a deep furrow in his life.
Second thoughts started eating him and the clouds began to look like fists and the shadows like deep gashes. This rhetorical style, purplish but pliant, is put to work on tales of “people with lost, ugly souls”, usually set against the backdrop of American interventions abroad, and the broader backdrop of the “world”, which always seems to be on the verge of ending. In this heavy climate, two fates are feared like no other: eternal damnation and becoming a rent-a-cop.
Alas, Johnson’s latest novel, Nobody Move, shows little interest in such dark terrors. Instead of offering the possibility of salvation for its greedy, lubricious characters, it colludes in their shallow pursuits and empty enthusiasms. Jimmy Luntz, the faceless, spineless hero, is a barbershop singer and unlucky gambler who makes the mistake of shooting Gambol, chief foot soldier to a local gangster, Juarez. This incident, which takes place on page nine, proves decisive. Luntz spends the rest of the novel in dowdy motel rooms with a sexually uninhibited stranger called Anita Desilvera, while Gambol recuperates at the home of Juarez’s ex-wife, Mary, a macho blonde (“I did six months in Iraq in oh-three”) who administers blow jobs on demand.
Predictably enough, the plot also involves a stash of loot – $2.3 m – which Anita is attempting to procure from her estranged husband and his associate, an ailing judge. (He is described, with the uninventive hard-heartedness typical of the book, as “a sack of cancer”.) The novel is obsessed with material possessions. The characters’ feelings are granted considerably less attention than what coat they happen to be wearing, what car they drive and what gun they carry. This endless logging, which writers generally use to represent a private investigator’s necessary vigilance to detail, is motivated by nothing more exigent than the novel’s proudly connoisseurish Top Gear sensibility.
Johnson had previously written an enormous, hypnotic exercise in what he calls “California Gothic” (Already Dead); the new work visits the more densely populated territory of California noir. But Johnson is a feeble pasticheur. Updating and refining Philip Marlowe’s view of womankind, as expounded in The Big Sleep, he has written a novel in which the female characters are servants or sex objects (or, in Mary’s case, both). Similarly, Marlowe’s dim view of foreigners and minorities is transmuted into a kind of noir philosophising (as in “Mexicans are human, too”). While Johnson indulges these tendencies, he rejects the opportunity, seized in his other novels, to write pleasurably overblown prose. The moral atmosphere of Raymond Chandler
is straitjacketed, for the most part, in the language of Raymond Carver, a dourer anatomist of Californian life.
This is Johnson’s gravest error. The reader rightly expects a book like this to be tumid with verbal activity. In an unjustly forgotten passage from his own miserly, misogynistic noir Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Norman Mailer compares a man drinking coffee to “an old diesel taking in fuel”; his gesticulations to “an obstetrician describing how he got two fingers in to turn the baby’s head out of breach”; and his air of complacency to that of “a convalescent who was getting better by disregarding doctor’s orders”. Johnson mostly forgoes such extravagances, though his occasional attempts suggest that this ought to be a reason for gratitude rather than griping. His similes – Anita “made love like a drunken nun”, Mary “crossed her legs like a secretary” – are laddish and lazy, and his hard-boiled perceptions – “Why do they call it happy, and why do they say it lasts an hour?” – leave him with egg on his face. (There are, however, worse things to have on your face; in the novel’s climactic scene, Anita attacks the judge with his colostomy bag.)
Yet the pity of Nobody Move is not that Johnson fails to meet Carver’s standards – or Mailer’s – but that he does not meet his own. Elsewhere, he has written with exotic precision about conversational silences (“clutching lulls in talk”), rust-ravaged cars (“a ferric variety of putrefaction”) and the United States (“a country north of Mexico that made no sense”). He should return to his unnameable genre, which mobilises this kind of prose, rather than attempting further adventures in the genre to which this book belongs, all too easily identified as filthy realism.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer