A man in a barbershop vest walks into a bar


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I wasn’t sure what to expect of a serial hard-boiled noir in Playboy from Denis Johnson, but it wasn’t a guy in a checkered vest singing barbershop. Lutz starts out as an anti-noir character, the kind of nebbish Bogart played at so well in the bookstore in ‘The Big Sleep.’ But of course, Bogart was still Philip Marlowe behind the facade, and similarly, Luntz isn’t a putz underneath, at least not a wimpy one. We don’t see the scene where he shoots the much-bigger Gambol — an interesting omission, evoked only by the wonderful passage Richard cites — but we wind up convinced that he’s got the guts to take action.

I’m not sure what purpose the barbershop bit serves, other than to give readers an early misimpression of Luntz, and to stick him in that goofy getup for the violent and seductive scenes that follow. At this point, I find it a little hard to believe that gambler Luntz would join a barbershop group, and I hope there’s some narrative payoff. I don’t want it just to provide a quirky, Tarantino-like juxtaposition; I want it to make some kind of twisted sense.


Maybe that kind of tension — how can this fit? — is what keeps a reader hooked between serial installments. Sure, we’re curious about Gambol’s fate, and what will happen between Luntz and Anita, but it’s the question of whether the author will pull everything together that keeps us intrigued. Sometimes I wonder whether Dickens threw in a random character every now and then just to keep things interesting, challenging himself to make sense of everything in his allotted space (a mere 18 episodes — 900 pages).

David points out that the dialogue doesn’t always work, but I disagree. I love Johnson’s characters’ crosstalk — often they seem to be in two entirely separate conversations. And it’s not like the characters don’t notice. ‘This is starting to sound like one of those messed-up conversations,’ Anita says to Luntz. As both David and Richard have pointed out, in moments like this, it seems as if Johnson is having some fun.

Carolyn Kellogg