Jonathan Lethem — Gun, with Occasional Music

The January movie trades were abuzz with news that a screenwriter has been picked to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, for the Polsky brothers, Gabe and Alan. For those unfamiliar with the young producers—30 and 33, respectively—they were behind Werner Herzog’s re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant, creatively called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Didn’t see it? Me either, mostly because it starred Nicolas Cage whose good movie-to-crap ratio has gotten completely out of whack—still, it is a ballsy proposition to willingly go up against Harvey Keitel’s performance as the original (very, very, … very) bad lieutenant.

As for the book, one of my favorite things about Lethem’s work is the sense of fun he imparts when playing with the expectations of genre. Gun takes the noir of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and fuses it with the dystopian science fiction of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, with a little William S. Burroughs thrown in for leavening.

The life of Gun’s protagonist, futuristic flat foot Conrad Metcalf, gets complicated when his client on a simple peep job ends up murdered. The problem compounds exponentially when the number one suspect, after Metcalf himself, shows up to hire the detective to find the real killer.

This brings unwanted heat from the Inquisitor’s Office, an all-seeing, not-so-secret police force that has the power to remove “karma points” from citizens as they see fit. To let one’s karma fall to zero is to become a non-person and awards the unlucky a trip to the (literal) freezer. Further complicating matters, is the fact that everyone is hooked on the government-supplied drugs “Forgettol” and “Acceptol” which makes getting a straight answer from anyone an interesting challenge.

Not satisfied with a run-of-the-mill paranoid run through one of our possible paths, Lethem ups the ante with super-evolved talking animals, including a gun-toting kangaroo (inspired by a Chandler quote reproduced at the top of the story), a concubine sheep, and disturbing “babyheads,” human toddlers who have had the same mutagenic fast-forward applied to them, making them little alcoholic fatalist assholes.

Lethem would return to the detective genre with the award-winning Motherless Brooklyn, which if I were a Polsky brother and had just blown into Hollywood with an butt load of cash, I would have started there. Talking kangaroos and the like are tricky to pull off without looking ridiculous, and like the creatures in David Cronenberg’s 1991 take on Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, perhaps left to the individual widescreens in our heads.

As for who might be right for the part of Metcalf—why not double down and go with Cage? In for a penny, in for a pound.

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