Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pale Black

I've all but given up on mystery novels. Television does them so well, so much more economically, and frankly with greater depth; characters have faces and move, murders are resolved in a hour and a half, and the consequences of violence seem more real, the blood is red, the regret registers. Now and again though, I grow wistful and take a thriller home, remembering how I thrilled to every page of Sherlock Holmes, what a revelation it was to read my first Raymond Chandler or pick up Killer on the Road on the recommendation of a friend. True crime anthologies and the regular stories of the rich gone wrong in Vanity Fair Magazine tend nowadays to do for me, when it comes to written crime, but then the weekend looms and I think I might just want a fast, mean read.

There was a time when I would gather up four or five paperback mysteries and spend the whole of a weekend, specially a long weekend, ripping through thrillers, one after another. I read all of Conan Doyle when I was boy in a kind of frenzy, ignoring my school work, my chores, the television, my friends. For two or three weeks I could think of nothing else, regretted sleep, lived only for a new story from Doctor Watson. I still think that that was the best way, and absolutely the right time, at eleven or twelve, to read Holmes. I've reread some favorites in just the past year or so, and was amazed to find the stories funny as well as thrilling. I remembered all of Sherlock Holmes as being deadly earnest. I read nearly everything the same way when I was young; liking one novel or story, I would then need to read everything, end to end, that I could find by that author. Mysteries and thrillers lend themselves well to this kind of reading, but I did it with almost every author I read on my own, when I was young. I read Jerzy Kosinski with just such obsessive devotion one summer in high school. Even as a younger adult, I still kept the habit of reading mysteries, when I still read them at all, as a more occasional indulgence but one necessitating more than one or two books, and long, happily otherwise empty hours alone, without distraction. I read both volumes of the Library of America's noir anthologies just this way, but those were my last murderous, crowded, long weekends.

Noir, as a catch-all, would have to be the easiest way to categorize my preferred style of thriller. Chandler and Hammett and Cain, down to Jim Thompson, Ellroy and Jake Arnott, that last a gay Brit who might be said to have taken all that stylishly butch posturing to one of its two natural conclusions, overtly homo gangsters, the other postmodern road being Ellroy's, ending in vicious, semi-pornographic self parody. What I enjoyed in all the best of the form was the action; guns, gangsters and plots gone wrong, the cynical romanticism; of tough guys who read poetry, quote Homer, and lose their hearts in the gutter, and the insistent, twisted aestheticism, from which all the genre's practitioners seem to have derived both their dark philosophy of life and their now sometimes quaint pleasure in inventive and funny aphorism. Noir, at it's best, can be beautiful, bub.

I recently took home the new Denis Johnson novella, Nobody Move, just hoping for a quick fix of the remembered Adrenalin. It's on our bestseller list. Johnson won the National Book Award just last year for his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke, which, I admit, I could not read, though because of its setting and subject, not because of any fault I found in the writing. I've read Johnson before, at least the better part of two earlier novels and all of his story collection, Jesus' Son. His new book is a well reviewed little noir, originally published serially in Playboy Magazine. I read it in a night, but it did not really satisfy.

What was best in Johnson's earlier stories -- the sense of comic instability, the marginality of the characters as junkies and petty thieves taken very much for granted, though obviously and accurately detailed, the Holy Idiot business played with tongue firmly pressed into cheek -- in a later novel, Already Dead: A California Gothic, went all flabby and maundering. It seems it is all but impossible to write about the business of drugs without ascribing their sale and use to either an almost supernatural evil, or lapsing, as Johnson seemed to, into a hazy, good natured mysticism. It's as if only cops and potheads ever write junky fiction. Johnson, of course, is not of the cop school.

And that may explain why his new short novel seemed more workmanlike but less satisfying even than the two earlier novels I'd never quite finished. Denis Johnson, like many a contemporary writer, is drawn to criminality, but does quite believe in crime. In his new book, crime happens. His leads are both quickly and amusingly sketched; the guy a singer of competitive barbershop and a degenerate gambler, the gal a blackmailing femme fatale, and the plot that brings them together is satisfyingly arbitrary. The writing is competent and even clever. I was reminded though of a quote from Agatha Christie:

"I don't think necessity is the mother of invention - invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble."

And that seems to have been the problem. Denis Johnson's noir seems idly done, invented, like a story told in a bar, to pass an amusing hour or two, as it did well enough for me, but without the angry necessity one feels from the best practitioners of the form. In short, I don't think Denis Johnson was serious. He needn't be, if what he'd written had been parody, but it's not. Instead it is something like the outline of, or a screenplay based upon, a better book than he wrote. There's no black heart in his little book, no sense of either the disappointed crusade or the survival of love's devastation. Those old boys may have been drunk or punchy when they wrote the sometimes truly ugly stories they did, and their plots could be a hot mess, but they were sincerely unhappy. Johnson isn't. He seems too good natured, perhaps too fundamentally cheerful, or if not that, then perhaps even -- dare I suggest such a thing -- happy? for this kind of thing. His cynicism seems borrowed, like a pinched fedora. I can't help but think he wanted to write a Jim Thompson novel, and ended up writing the pitch for an ersatz Elmore Leonard screenplay.

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