You have to say it in just the right growly Chicago gangster voice, to achieve the full fun.
I'm sure a lot of people will remember me going on about Johnson his novel Already Dead, A California Gothic has long been my second favourite novel of all time. I often describe Johnson as the best American writer nobody has ever heard of. (Much less true, no doubt, after the National Book Award.) And, since Dave Wallace erased his own cartography last year, I suppose that leaves Johnson as my favourite living writer.
Nobody Move, which was originally serialized in Playboy, is more than worth buying, incidentally, if only (but of course not only) for the stunning book design. You'll keep flipping back to the full-colour newsprint illustrations of its zoot-suit-clad anti-hero and curvy, underwear-wearing femme fatale (both toting revolvers, naturally). Moreover, it's a hoot to listen to this literary chronicler of haunted, modern, addiction-addled, dystopian, hidden America bashing out hardboiled dialogue and pistol-play in the style of Chandler and Hammett. It's a minor work, but a greater minor work, I think. Really good fun and you could pick a worse introduction to Denis Johnson. (*) (And you really should be introduced to Denis Johnson.)
As it happens, I found myself reading Brad Thor's ultra-mega-bestselling The Last Patriot immediately afterward, as a matter of research. ("Jingoistic counter-terrorism action thrillers" seeming to be the area I'm working in lately.) There are any number of comments I might make about this other "novel", many of them to do with middle-school reading levels and cliche-count per paragraph. A few examples will suffice:
Elbows are continually "driven into solar plexuses"; crowds "run screaming in all directions"; gunmen appear "out of nowhere"; junkies' arms are "reedlike." Weapons are invariably flashed; minds race for solutions; assailants' breath can practically be felt against the backs of necks; miracles are hoped for; and packets of money are always opened discreetly. (These are all taken from the dozen or so pages around page 160, which is about as far as I could make it through.)
All the characters speak in exactly the same voice though their cliches are appropriate to their roles. Villains say,"One false move and I will kill you both before the police even realize what is happening." CIA agents editorialize that, "Our country is at war and our job is to prevent the enemy from winning. And before you give me a speech about upholding the Constitution…" Someone who has someone else tied up declares, "We'll dispense with the chitchat, Monsieur Bertrand. You have I something want." Indeed.
In the spirit of Mark Twain on The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper, I'll examine just a paragraph here (taken more or less at random, also from around page 160). Click the inline bollocks for my annotation and analysis.
"The flamboyant dandy in a white three-piece silksuit stood about five-foot-seven. The only thing thinner than his emaciated frame was the pencil-thin mustache that hovered above his almost non-existent upper lip. His hair was parted on the left and slicked back with some sort of pomade while a pair of gray eyes darted nervously back and forth beneath two overly manicured eyebrows. A pocket watch on a gold chain sat nestled inside his vest pocket. On his feet , the rare-book dealer wore a pair of highly polished black and white spectators while a brightly colored handkerchief billowed from his breast pocket. "
To circle back to where I started, the comparison of the Thor "book" with the Johnson is fascinating.
Both use a lot of genre "conventions" which is what "cliches" are called when they are intentional. But, of course, Johnson knows he is doing this, and is having fun with it, and composing wild new melodies in an established musical style . . . whereas Thor is merely using the laziest, most back-of-the-cereal-box language conceivable yet clearly believes he is doing serious (and original!) writing. He's like this aggressive drunk lurching around the bar, claiming he used to be in Special Forces and threatening to snap everyone's neck but who in actuality can barely stand, and doesn't realise people are just shaking their heads and laughing at him. Meanwhile, Johnson has already slipped out back and killed six people without anyone even realising he was gone.
Both books are very spare. I think, in fact, the average number of syllables per word, and the average sentence-length, are very nearly the same in both books. But where the Johnson is pared down so that every syllable is going to work, on the job, precisely fit for purpose, resonating outward in a dozen directions . . . the Thor is nothing padded out to be even less, void piled upon more void, until it's worth even less than the sum of its parts, which is already enormously negative. Where Johnson is a nuclear-powered super-carrier tuned down to the butteriest idle, cruising along without a ripple, but whose hundreds of megawatts of radioactive power still tremble perceptibly beneath your feet . . . Thor is a half-horsepower weedwhacker revved up to an attrocious whine, recklessly brandished in all directions, the whole thing threatening to fly apart at any second, splattering mulch and dog-shit across your garden.
But I suppose it's reassuring that readers at a fourth-grade level will always have a counter-terrorism thriller to read; and that writers at the eighth-grade level will always be around to write them and to get to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in doing so. As Orwell would no doubt have it in saecula saeculorum.