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.
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