Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Woodrell, Johnson, and Crime Genre Considerations

I read two good books recently that were bent genre material: Denis Johnson's Nobody Move and Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do. What do I mean by "bent genre"? I'm not sure -- I like the phrase -- but something to the effect that neither writer approached genre on a straight or direct path. Both books have crime elements and were marketed as crime fiction, but I wouldn't hold them up as models of genre execution (though I might have liked both books more than such models).

First, Nobody Move: For Johnson, this book must've been a bit of a lark. He runs with the highbrow crowd -- and won the National Book Award for the Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke -- but he wrote this book on assignment, serialized in Playboy. Considering that venue, the book is not particularly salacious or consumerist (and is, in the end, pretty damn noir). Perhaps with a nod to his war novel, Nobody Move opens with the protagonist Jimmy Luntz likening his situation to going into battle: he's about to go on stage in a singing competition. That sets the oddball tone. Jimmy is quickly intercepted by a loan shark collector, there's a shooting, Jimmy flees, gets tangled up with a femme fatale who claims to have access (with help) to 2 million dollars, and so on. For all this genre action, Johnson wants to dwell on character, including Gambol, the weathered and gunshot collector. He writes with clarity, emotion, and purpose, which are refreshingly tethered by the crime elements. Incidentally, Jon Breen, the reviewer for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, didn't like this book too much because of its thin plot and unlikable characters. For me, the book might be compelling because of these two factors.

Now, The Ones You Do: I had never read Woodrell and had heard high praise for him for a while. He deserves the praise (based on my reading of this one novel), but I find it strange that he is being blurbed by James Ellroy and shelved with mystery fiction. Maybe his other books run closer to the genre. In this book, there is one character who is a suspended cop and a cameo by his brother, a DA, but really this novel reads closer to Flannery O'Connor or Harry Crews (e.g., Feast of Snakes) than crime fiction. Like Johnson, Woodrell follows the frame of a crime plot: $47K is stolen from thug Lunch Pumphrey, and recognizing that he'll take the blame, washed-up pool hustler John X. Slade flees one southern town for another with his tweener daughter. Woodrell has great dialogue, characterization, and black humor. A few scenes with Lunch are especially memorable and startling. I plan to read more Woodrell, who like O'Connor two generations before him, came through the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but I won't approach him with crime genre expectations in place (but maybe with Southern Noir expectations; Woodrell uses the phrase "Country Noir" to describe his work, and southern writers often detest the label "Southern Gothic," so "Southern Noir" seems a good compromise).