In the square-jawed, barking-gun world of American noir fiction, there are rules to follow, past masters to emulate. Imitations and knockoffs are as easy to spot as the dames who’ll trade loyalties for cheap liquor and the promise of a one-way ticket out of Nowheresville. The good examples of neo-noir hit you like a fist to the solar plexus: even as you crumple to the floor, you know you’re being worked over by a master wordsmith. Elmore Leonard, for instance, has built a career out of these literary one-two punches. Scott Phillips’s The Ice Harvest is another example of a contemporary novel that expertly connected every dot first drawn by James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, and a handful of other founding fathers of the hardboiled crime story.
Now comes Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, and it enters the pantheon of crime fiction kicking down the door and spraying the room with the kind of prose that would make Dashiell Hammett jealous. Set in contemporary Northern California, it reads like a pulp classic from an era where all men wore hats, action trumped introspection every time, and — in an unfortunate by-product of the time — women were relegated to the roles of prostitutes, girlfriends, or secretaries. Plotwise, there’s little here we haven’t seen before: a gambler in debt up to his kneecaps falls in with a femme fatale while trying to sidestep the gunmen on his trail. It’s in the telling where Nobody Move rises above the cheap noir wannabes. This is a novel that snaps its sentences like a stick on a snare drum and barrels through 200 pages with the accelerator pressed to the floor.
The grim world of violence and betrayal will come as little surprise to fans of Johnson’s novels and short stories. Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, and Already Dead are books mired in the thick clay of nihilism and ambiguity but soar to exhilarating heights with Johnson’s unfettered style. Nobody Move may not have the heft of the Vietnam War magnum opus Tree of Smoke; but at one-third the length, it is nearly as shattering.
In the novel’s first pages, we meet Jimmy Luntz as he’s coming offstage after performing in a barbershop quartet. This first impression of Jimmy quickly proves incongruous. It’s not long before the white-tuxedoed barbershop singer has been replaced by someone resembling Humphrey Bogart with a scruffy two-day beard. Johnson never tells us what harmonic part Jimmy sings in the barbershop group, but I’d like to think it’s a high, quavery tenor. Jimmy, as we soon learn, is a tough guy of the equivocating sort, a gambler who is never sure when he’ll get his next lucky break. Throughout Johnson’s novel, those breaks are as few and far between as gas stations on a remote desert highway.
Jimmy is on the wrong side of a man named Juarez, who has sent his trusted henchman, Ernest Gambol, after Jimmy to collect the debt. Meanwhile, Jimmy is ensnared by Anita Desilvera, a woman who’s been framed for extortion by her louse of a husband. In the matter of two dozen pages, the stage has been set for a tense dance of pursuit, evasion, sex, revenge, and hair-trigger violence.
Some of the most potent bloodshed in Nobody Move takes place off the page. Truncated scenes begin as characters’ ears are ringing from gunshots or gore is still being sopped up from the front seat of a stolen car. As with the greatest moments of Tree of Smoke, readers will find there’s a certain poetry to the violence in these pages: “The man lay motionless in the narrow space between the counter and the stove, shirtless and barefoot, facedown. Gambol took aim, holding the weapon with both hands, took note of his breathing, and in the space between his out breath and in breath squeezed the trigger carefully. The head broke open.” Elsewhere, a wound is described as “the purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh.”
There’s such an economy of language in Nobody Move that we watch the action flick past and wonder if there are gaps in the film; but Johnson is so damned crafty, he makes the stuttering flow of narrative feel as natural as Gambol’s in-out breathing. Our imagination fills the interstices between the words and we grasp what the characters are all about in the space of just a few jarring images. There is smart alchemy at work here.
Consider for instance, our first introduction to Anita when we see her stopping for relief (and a nip of vodka) in the cool dark of a movie theater showing a boxing movie:
While men on the screen beat each other’s faces to pieces she sat in the dark and got thirty percent drunk and found a kerchief in the pocket of her overcoat and buried her face in it and wept with greater abandon. There was really no other place for the wife of the Palo County prosecutor to gulp down booze and grieve. They’d taken everything but the car. When her watch said ten minutes till noon she made her way to the washroom and got her face back together and ran a brush through her hair and went out to the glaring street.
Johnson does in four sentences what it would take other writers 20 pages to describe.
Nobody Move is steeped in film noir trademarks — from the snappy dialogue to the jump-cuts between scenes, all the way down to the title itself, which sounds like a command growled by George Raft as he bursts into a room with a loaded gun. It’s nearly impossible not to hear Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck when you read lines like these:
He yanked the shotgun from the duffel. “Okay. We’re gone.”
“There’s no way to go,” he said, “but the way we’re going. I know how it ends, but there’s no other way.”
At some level, I suppose you could make the argument that Johnson is writing a pastiche of classic noir. All the archetypes are here: the femme fatale, the defeated hero, the wronged gangster, the dangerous-but-sensitive henchman, the moll, the lug, the palooka. Johnson has already written the Great American Vietnam War Novel; why not try his hand at another genre?
Author’s intentions aside, the novel succeeds on multiple levels — as parody, as existential neo-noir, or as a flat-out entertaining thriller that easily holds its own against Chandler and Hammett. By the novel’s final scene — where a battered Jimmy buys a lottery ticket and a pack of his favorite cigarettes, Luckies — we’ve been so thoroughly transported, we can almost taste that bittersweet smoke, too.