There used to be more to Playboy than centerfolds and "The Girl Next Door." People, not just men, used to read the magazine for articles written by the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.
Last summer, the same critics who've long noted Playboy's declining cultural relevance were surprised to learn that Playboy had commissioned Denis Johnson -- author of the 2007 National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke -- to write a 40,000-word serial novel.
Given the impotence of Playboy's impact -- losses for the last quarter of 2008 exceeded $145 million -- Johnson's crime caper will likely get more exposure now that it's been published in book form by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Nobody Move deserves the attention. Not just for refreshing the hard-boiled idiom of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also for inventing a variation of the ethical obsessions of Charles Dickens.
One can imagine Johnson reviving characters the way Dickens did in London newspapers -- except for the fact that Johnson's people keep dying. Instead of the morally streamlined Oliver, David and Dorrit, we get the morally clotted Jimmy Luntz, whose gambling debts to gangster Juarez get him into hot water.
Meanwhile, alcoholic Anita Desilvera is embroiled in a divorce settlement with a California prosecutor, who manages to embezzle, with the help of a crooked judge, $2.3 million. She falls in with Luntz after he takes a rain-check on the date his kneecaps had with a tire iron courtesy of Gambol, Juarez's No. 1 goon. Luntz shoots Gambol through the leg to launch an unexpected and rather touching narrative thread that changes how you think of noir.
Indeed, there is graphic violence (a gunshot wound is a "purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh" and "the back of his head had been scooped away and flung against the oven's door"), plus sex and grisly wit (i.e., complaints about walking too far after burying a dead body). But amidst it all reside degrees of right and wrong even clownish low-lifes like Luntz believe in. He's a liar, cheater and latent rapist, but he can't kill Gambol even when he should. For Gambol, meanwhile, killing is a job, nothing personal. As for Anita -- well, she redefines the psychology of the femme fatale. And her fate is the cruelest of all.
Johnson's sympathies seem to be with Gambol, a bad man who isn't so much seeking redemption as having redemption thrust on him. When offered an exit out of this seedy underworld, he takes it with Mary, a "heavyset blonde" and former Army medic who brings him back to health. Gambol may deal in death, and sometimes even take pleasure in it, but he is distinguished by a lack of human hatred -- for others and himself. In the brutal world of Nobody Move, that makes all the difference.
Denis Johnson at the Adamson Visiting Writers Series 8 p.m. Fri., May 1. Baker Hall 136, Carnegie Mellon campus. Free. 412-268-6094 or www.hss.cmu.edu