California Literary Review

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson


June 8th, 2009 at 9:46 am

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Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
Nobody Move: A Novel
by Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

Guns, Girls, and Gambling

For people who liked Johnson’s recent National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke or his drug-laden 1992 short story collection Jesus’ Son, his latest, Nobody Move, is a real change of pace. Originally published as a four-part serial in Playboy in 2008, this hardboiled noir tale plays with the conventions of thrillers and crime stories, utilizing nearly every stereotype and trick from the arsenal of Dashiell Hammett, Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard, and Raymond Chandler (who Johnson studied writing with at the Iowa Writers’ Studio in the 1970s). The result? A fast-paced, funny, and decidedly enjoyable read. But don’t come to it with the expectations you might have for Johnson’s other novels—this one’s about grit, guns, and guffaws. And the lowlife characters all deserve the fate dispensed to them in the end.

Lovable Loser #1 is Jimmy Luntz, a sad-sack compulsive gambler (and member of the barbershop singing group The Alhambra California Beachcomber Chordsmen) who’s got himself in a world of trouble with Juarez, an Arab Mafioso-type who passes himself off as a Hispanic kingpin. Juarez sends Gambol (Lovable Loser #2), an enforcer, after Jimmy to break his knees. During the confrontation, Jimmy wrests the gun away and blasts Gambol in the leg, then steals his wallet and his car. On the lam now, Luntz encounters Loveable Loser #3, a gorgeous femme fatale named Anita Desilvera whose husband has set her up as the patsy for a $2.3 million embezzling scheme involving a corrupt judge. She’s got no car, no house, no money, so clearly she’s a perfect match for Jimmy because they both have little to lose.

Despite the many yuk-yuk moments of pastiche and noodling with potboiler clichés, Johnson’s skill as a writer sneaks in. His description of the landscape of the American West is as strong as Twain’s rendering of the Mississippi River or Cormac McCarthy’s take on the gothic Southwest. You can even feel a little dose of Papa Hemingway in the terseness of lines such as:

In the jagged silhouette of the treetops to his left, a small glow began and followed him as he drove. In three or four minutes the moon had risen into view. A crescent moon. Muslim moon. It gave very little light.

You never doubt that Johnson’s writing this story on a deadline, though, with his brisk pace and stripped-done language that rarely ventures into the poetic which we know he’s capable of thanks to his four volumes of poetry (I recommend The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems, which powerfully chronicles the lives of marginalized people in seedy bars and greasy spoon diners). But when those fleeting moments of hard, potent beauty arrive, they’re wonderful.

Johnson’s not bad with dialogue either, though it’s hard to read passages like the following without a wink and a smirk:

Luntz said, “Fucking Sally. Sally the snitch.” He hunched his bare shoulders and wrapped himself in his arms. “I should’ve beaten him to death with the shovel. Spade. The spade.”

And there’s this characteristically bizarre exchange much earlier in this book which has an unmistakable Coen brothers feel to it.

Juarez called. He told Gambol, “A really funny thing happened.”
“I’m not in a mood for funny.”
“This is a really funny thing. But it’s not for this kind of phone. This is a pay-phone-to-pay-phone kind of funny thing. Call me in ten minutes.”
“I don’t have any pants on.”
“I won’t repeat myself.”
“What are you wearing, honey?”
“Fuck you. Give me two hours. I need an hour just to get my pants on. Make it four o’ clock.”
“Exactly four o’ clock p.m. Get some pants. Then get ready to laugh your pants off.”
He did sound like an Arab.

The rest of the main setup is this: In love with Anita, Jimmy hides out with her at a biker bar run by two of his old friends, loveable losers in their own right. A battered and bleeding Gambol has been rescued by Mary, Juarez’s ex-lover (who happens to be a former Army nurse—this novel is full of lucky surprises) who takes care of Gambol medically and sexually in return for a nice pile of cash. Before long, Gambol is after Jimmy again and we’re introduced to the enigmatic “Tall Man,” an evil henchman of Juarez who takes his place in the relentless pursuit. And soon enough, they’re all after a password-protected account that hides the millions.

Much of the fun of a book like this is finding out “whodunit” (or in this case, who, if anyone, gets the cash, and at what cost does the prize come), so this review will not spoil those facts. But along the way, be prepared for shootings, killings, torture, dismemberment, and heaps upon heaps of sex that’s so violent and strange you can’t help but be mesmerized. If that’s not good old-fashioned potboiler fun, what is?

Reviewers and readers who are looking for symbols throughout the book (citing the first line “Jimmy Luntz had never been to war” or Anita’s odd connection to flowing water) are missing the boat. This is an in-your-face book that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is—a group of marginal characters lost in the mayhem of their self-created (and often thoughtless) lives. They’re victims of their own vices and emotions. Some might call this a “slight” book. But it’s entertaining, haunting, and might even showcase an ounce or two of salvation. For readers that don’t think this is enough? After Tree of Smoke, Johnson should get the benefit of the doubt in every case. He’s one of the top writers in America, and even when he’s just having fun, there’s still much to admire.

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