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Nobody Move

Denis Johnson

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Apr 2009)

Oh, Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou?

Denis Johnson, along with writers including Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nathan Englander, and Rivka Galchen, is poised among the vanguard of American literary fiction for the 21st Century.


His big Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award (for good reason), and his compelling collection of stories about down-and-out druggies, Jesus’ Son, has appeared on more than one “best of” list for books written in the last 20 years.


So, some may wonder, what the hell is he doing writing genre fiction for serialization in Playboy magazine? The answer, I think, at the very least, is having a lot of fun, and, just as likely, trying to get rich. But, let’s focus on the fun part first.


Recently published in hardback, Nobody Move is 200 sparse pages of hardboiled crime fiction, a pastiche of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Dashiell Hammett, a hint of early Haruki Murakami, and, most tellingly, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (a comparison I’ll come back to).


It’s the story of Jimmy Luntz, a compulsive gambler and—the jokes beginning on page one—a lead singer for the Alhambra California Beachcomber Chordsmen. Like all gamblers, he’s in over his head and quickly finds himself in the clutches of Gambol, the enforcer for one Juarez (nobody in Nodody Move is good, but the really bad dudes have only one name), an Arab criminal kingpin passing for Hispanic, conducting business out of a tavern. About to get his knees broken, Jimmy grabs Gambol’s gun and shoots him in the leg when, of course, he should have shot him in the head.


On the run, Jimmy chances upon the femme fatale Anita Desilvera, reclining by a river. Part American Indian, thus slightly mystical (rivers mean something special to her), and very beautiful, she has just pled guilty to embezzling $2.3 million, a crime actually perpetrated by her husband, who has publicly dragged her through the mud as well as divorce court. Her plea agreement in front of Judge Tanneau, her husband’s accomplice in the embezzlement, has left her with no car, no money, no house, and a judgment of $800 per month for life in restitution. Like Jimmy, she has nothing to lose.


Here’s her response to watching Jimmy toss Gambol’s handgun into the river.


Getting up and taking the keys from the Camaro’s ignition and walking around to open the trunk ... she located two mayonnaise jars full of washers and screws, put one under each arm, and went around to the front of the car and took from the glove compartment a loaded stainless steel .357 Magnum.


She walked 30 feet across the bare spot where she’d parked and set the two jars on the dirt. She returned to the car, faced her targets and took aim with a two-hand grip in what was often called the Weaver stance, the gun out front of her line of sight and both feet planted wide apart, elbows flexed and her shoulders slightly hunched, and fired twice.


Both jars exploded in a mist of glass and rusty nuts and bolts.


She lay down again on her coat, the gun resting on her belly, and let the day’s last sunshine warm her on one side.


For Jimmy, watching all this, it’s love at first sight. They soon pair up and find a hideout in a biker bar run by two old friends of Jimmy’s. Meanwhile, Gambol has been rescued and taken home by Mary, Jaurez’s ex and a former Army nurse, who tends to Gambol’s wounds, and other portions of his anatomy, not entirely because Juarez has promised her a hefty cash reward.


That’s the setup. Soon, Gambol will be after Jimmy and the game will be on, including the mysterious “Tall Man”, Juarez’s evil right-hand-man, a chase scene, reversals of fortune for virtually every character, killing, torture, and dismemberment, several instances of not-quite-divine retribution, and an ending in which nobody you’re rooting for prospers (perhaps).


Which brings me back to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, this book’s kissin’ cousin. Both books read like unformatted screenplays. Where McCarthy’s book is Southwestern Gothic, Johnson’s is California Noir, but both are essentially the same book. The only difference is that McCarthy can’t resist a few moments of pretentious philosophizing and Johnson responds with some fuzzy paragraphs about Anita’s spirit double across the river.


Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every page of Nobody Move. It’s just plain fun, and nothing more. It contains every possible cliché of hardboiled fiction, except the weary first person narrator. The plot twists are both obvious and slightly skewed, so you don’t feel the author is simply copying. Above all, this brief book is full of energy.


And, I’d bet my last five-spot the Coen Brothers already own the movie rights.

Rating:

Christopher Guerin was President of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic from 1985 to 2005 and is currently the Director of Program Development for Sweetwater Sound. He recently launched Zealotry (christopherguerin.blogspot.com/), a blog featuring his fiction and poetry, and is a writer and columnist for the group blog When Falls The Coliseum. His column there, "Now Read This!" (whenfallsthecoliseum.com/author/cguerin/ ), concentrates on great works of fiction or poetry. He is the author of two books each of fiction and poetry, a novel, and more than a dozen children's books, all in search of a publisher.


Related Articles
1 Oct 2007
Denis Johnson's towering and mystifying new novel, Tree of Smoke, is truly one of the great Vietnam novels. The faint scent of disgust of a purposeless war seems inherited straight from Greene's view of America's tragic involvement in Southeast Asia, but the exuberant exhaustion is strictly Johnson's.
2 May 2002
From modern-day hippies, to war-weary Africans, to a Kabul under Taliban rule, to Christian biker rallies, Denis Johnson offers glimpses of how the other half lives in a collection of essays.
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