Dickens, Collins ... Denis Johnson?


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There’s something odd about the idea, isn’t there? That’s to say, the form of the serial novel doesn’t have the currency it did when Charles Dickens (above, left) and Wilkie Collins (above, right) were banging out monthly installments against a deadline for those magazines that Dickens ran and eventually owned. Such an undertaking has a gimmicky feel, and, in the case of the recent John Banville/Benjamin Black story in the New York Times Magazine, we were faced with a definitely wonky widget.

That said, the combination of Denis Johnson and Playboy feels much more promising. Was he winking in the direction of his own book, ‘Stars at Noon,’ when, early on in this first extract, a character says in a bit of dialogue: ‘Almost noon?’ As usual, Johnson takes characters who start at the end of their tethers, a character situation that lends itself naturally toward noir and the pursuit thriller. Which is obviously, I hope, what we’re getting here — Denis Johnson channeling Elmore Leonard, with bits of ‘The Sopranos’ thrown in, and making the gumbo his own.


For me, the thing got going with the scene break from the car so we get the look back at what just happened: ‘Standing at the pay phone, Jimmy Luntz punched a nine and a one and stopped. He couldn’t hear the dial tone. His ears still rang. That old Colt revolver made a bang that slapped you silly.’ It’s a lovely piece of writing, delivering a narrative surprise with observational acuity and making us smile besides.

Then there’s the scene where Luntz is trying to tie the tourniquet on the leg of the guy he’s just shot. ‘With surprising energy, Gambol suddenly tossed away his white hat. The wind caught it, and it sailed a dozen yards into the trees. Then he seemed to lose consciousness.’ He’s such a good writer. The sex scene at the end was great, and I look forward to seeing what Anita Desilvera gets up to with those Magnums she has stashed in the trunk of her car. Somehow the two main characters, Luntz and Anita, made me think of the kids in ‘Angels,’ Johnson’s first novel, now grown up in some spectacularly damaged way. At this point I’m definitely along for the ride — but then the set-up is probably the easiest bit of what Johnson is attempting here.

My 13-year old blinked when he saw me reading Playboy. ‘Hey, can I borrow that after you?’ he said. He said he’d check out Denis Johnson too.

Richard Rayner