After his award-winning Vietnam epic, Johnson takes a busman’s holiday with this hard-boiled genre exercise.
While his previous novel Tree of Smoke (2007) elevated Johnson to a new level of renown, here he seems to take great delight veering toward the gutter in a fast-paced, dialogue-driven crime novel that explores the baser instincts of some California grifters. Instead of more glamorous Los Angeles or San Francisco, Johnson sets his novel in the environs around Bakersfield, where petty gambler Jimmy Luntz finishes as an also-ran in a barber-shop chorus competition. Then he realizes he’s an even bigger loser, as he stumbles into the too-obviously named Gambol, who has tailed Luntz to collect a gambling debt. Luntz leaves Gambol with a wound that Johnson describes as “a purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh” (Mickey Spillane has nothing on this novel) and escapes to encounter a ravishing divorcée who is also on the run. “You’re interesting every way there is,” he tells her, after drunken sex and a revelation concerning her involvement in the disappearance of two million dollars. She later tells him, “I like a bad man who hates himself.” There are no good guys, or gals, in this novel. And there’s no mystery, with police peripheral to the plot. Instead, Johnson seems to be paying homage to and subverting the conventions of the era of pulp fiction at its seediest. Originally published in Playboy, the novel serves as a stopgap before his return to greater literary aspirations. As one character tells another after learning about the death of a third, “In a hundred years we’re all dead.”
There’s some dirty fun here, but plenty of authors are better at this sort of novel.