The Washington Post
A quick, dirty, classically noir heist story from the NBA-winning author, set among killers, lowlifes and dangerous women in California.
The Washington Post
Lowlifes have never had it this good. Will Patton delivers a flawless reading of Johnson's novel of life on the lam. Patton, whose narration of Johnson's Book of Smoke was honored with an Audie Award, lowers his voice to a purring world-weary, chain smoking growl. He embodies each character with absolute authority-gambling addict Jimmy Luntz, on the run from kingpin Juarez, Juarez's bumbling strongman Gambol and the alcoholic karaoke aficionado, Anna Desilvera, who has the FBI on her tail. Listeners will be hooked-and quite possibly in stitches-from the first sentence of Patton's virtuosic performance. A Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover (Reviews, Jan. 12). (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Johnson follows his epic Vietnam novel, the National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke, with this slight noir novella. On impulse, gambling addict Jimmy Luntz shoots and wounds the enforcer Gambol when he comes to collect for loan shark Juarez. On the run, Jimmy crosses paths with the beautiful but alcoholic Anita Desilvera, whose lawyer husband has divorced her, embezzled $2.3 million, and framed her for the crime. A violent cat-and-mouse game through northern California follows as Jimmy and Anita try to take the embezzled money while avoiding Juarez and his henchmen. Originally serialized in Playboy, this combines Jim Thompson's violent noir, a shot of sexuality, and Elmore Leonard's darkly comic characters but falls short of better work by any of those writers. Deeply flawed but surprisingly likable characters are the highlight in what is otherwise a minor effort, devalued by a muddy plot and a hasty, forced ending. This is an adequate but not necessary selection that will most likely find readers in libraries where Johnson already has an audience. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/09.]
“The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson's.” Jonathan Franzen
“We can hearTwain in [ Johnson's] bitter irony, Whitman in his erotic excess . . . An amazingly talented writer.” Vince Passaro, Newsday
“Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist.” Jim Lewis, The New York Times Book Review
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
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- 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
Jimmy Luntz had never been to war, but this was the sensation, he was sure of that—eighteen guys in a room, Rob, the director, sending them out—eighteen guys shoulder to shoulder, moving out on the orders of their leader to do what they’ve been training day and night to do. Waiting silently in darkness behind the heavy curtain while on the other side of it the MC tells a stale joke, and then—"The Alhambra California Beachcomer Chordsmen!"—and they were smiling at hot lights, doing their two numbers.
Luntz was one of four leads. On "Firefly" he thought they did pretty well. Their vowels matched, they went easy on the consonants, and Luntz knew he, at least, was lit up and smiling, with plenty of body language. On "If We Can’t Be the Same Old Sweethearts" they caught the wave. Uniformity, resonance, expression of pathos, everything Rob had ever asked for. They’d never done it so well. Right face, down the steps, and into the convention center’s basement, where once again they arranged themselves in ranks, this time to pose for souvenir pictures.
"Even if we come in twentieth out of twenty," Rob told them afterward, while they were changing out of their gear, the white tuxedos and checkered vests and checkered bow ties, "we’re really coming in twentieth out of a hundred, right? Because remember, guys, one hundred outfits tried to get to this competition, and only twenty made it all the way here to Bakersfield. Don’t forget that. We’re out of a hundred, not twenty. Remember that, okay?" You got a bit of an impression Rob didn’t think they’d done too well.
Almost noon. Luntz didn’t bother changing into street clothes. He grabbed his gym bag, promised to meet the others back at the Best Value Inn, and hurried upstairs still wearing the getup. He felt the itch to make a bet. Felt lucky. He had a Santa Anita sheet folded up in the pocket of his blinding white tux. They started running at twelve-thirty. Find a pay phone and give somebody a jingle.
On his way out through the lobby he saw they’d already posted the judgments. The Alhambra Chordsmen ranked seventeenth out of twenty. But, come on, that was really seventeenth out of a hundred, right?
All right—fine. They’d tanked. But Luntz still had that lucky feeling. A shave, a haircut, a tuxedo. He was practically Monte Carlo.
He headed out through the big glass doors, and there’s old Gambol standing just outside the entrance. Checking the comings and goings. A tall, sad man in expensive slacks and shoes, camel-hair sports coat, one of those white straw hats that senior-citizen golfers wear. A very large head.
"So hey," Gambol said, "you are in a barbershop chorus."
"What are you doing here?"
"I came here to see you."
"No, but really."
"Really. Believe it."
"All the way to Bakersfield?"
That lucky feeling. It had let him down before.
"I’m parked over here," Gambol said.
Gambol was driving a copper-colored Cadillac Brougham with soft white leather seats. "There’s a button on the side of the seat," he said, "to adjust it how you want."
"People will be missing me," Luntz said. "I’ve got a ride back down to LA. It’s all arranged."
"Good, sure—just find a pay phone, and I’ll hop out."
Gambol handed him a cell phone. "Nobody’s hopping anywhere."
Luntz patted his pockets, found his notebook, spread it on his knee, punched buttons with his thumb. He got Rob’s voice mail and said, "Hey, I’m all set. I got a lift, a lift back down to Alhambra." He thought a second. "This is Jimmy." What else? "Luntz." What else? Nothing. "Good deal. I’ll see you Tuesday. Practice is Tuesday, right? Yeah. Tuesday."
He handed back the phone, and Gambol put it in the pocket of his fancy Italian sports coat.
Luntz said, "Okay if I smoke?"
"Sure. In your car. But not in my car."
Gambol drove with one hand on the wheel and one long arm reaching into the back seat, going through Luntz’s gym bag. "What’s this?"
"From what? Grizzly bears?" He reached across Luntz’s lap and shoved it in the glove compartment. "That is one big gun."
Luntz opened the compartment.
"Shut that thing, goddamn it."
Luntz shut it.
"You want protection? Pay your debts. That’s the best protection."
"I agree completely," Luntz said, "and can I tell you about an uncle of mine? I have an appointment to see him this afternoon."
"A rich uncle."
"Coincidentally, yes. He just moved out from the coast. Made a pile in the garbage business. The guy gets a new Mercedes every year. Just moved to Bakersfield. Last time I saw him he was still living in La Mirada. The Garbage King of La Mirada. Told me anytime I needed money to get in touch. We had lunch at the Outback Steakhouse in La Mirada. Wow, do they deliver. Choice cuts as thick as your arm. You ever try the Outback?"
"So, in other words, let me give this guy a call before we get too far out of town."
"In other words, you can’t make a payment."
"Yes, definitely, yes," Luntz said, "I can make a payment. Just let me use your phone and work a little magic."
Gambol behaved as if he hadn’t heard.
"Come on. The guy drives a Mercedes. Let me go see him."
"Fucking bullshit. Your uncle."
"Okay. He’s Shelly’s uncle. But he’s real."
"Is Shelly real?"
"She’s—yeah. Shelly? I used to live with her."
"The uncle of some bitch you used to live with."
"Give me a chance, friend. A chance to work my magic."
"You’re working it now. It ain’t working."
"Look, man, look," Luntz said, "let’s call Juarez. Let me talk to the man himself."
"Juarez is not a talker." "Come on. Don’t we know each other? What’s the
Gambol said, "My brother just died."
"What?" "He died exactly a week ago." Luntz knew nothing about any brother. How do you reason with someone who throws something like that into the conversation?
They were heading north. Bakersfield stank of oil and natural gas. In the most unlikely places, in the middle of a shopping mall or next to one of those fancy new churches, all glass and swooping curves, you’d see oil rigs with their heads going up and down.
"Used to fish up here with my brother," Gambol said, "somewhere around here anyway. On the Feather River."
Luntz unclasped his hands from each other and looked at them. "What?"
"Once, to be exact. We went fishing one time. We should’ve done it more."
The road was a four-lane, but not an interstate. The clock on the dash said 4:00 p.m.
"Where are we?"
"We’re just driving around," Gambol said. "Why? You need to be someplace?"
Luntz placed his hands on his knees and sat up straight. "Where are we going?"
"On this kind of trip, you don’t want to ask where it ends."
Luntz closed his eyes.
When he opened them he saw a crowd of bikers on Harleys coming toward them and sweeping past.
Gambol said, "See that? Half those bikies had Oregon plates. I think there’s a convention in Oakland or someplace like that. Guess what? I’ve never been on a motorcycle."
"Shit," Luntz said.
"Nothing. Those bikers. Shit," he said, "the Feather River. Is there a Feather River Tavern or something?"
"The river’s not anywhere around here. It’s more north. Guess what? You’ll never get me on a Harley."
"Helmet or not. What good is a helmet?"
"The Feather fucking River," Luntz said.
Standing at the pay phone, Jimmy Luntz punched a nine and a one and stopped. He couldn’t hear the dial tone. His ears still rang. That old Colt revolver made a bang that slapped you silly.
He dropped the receiver and let it dangle a few seconds. He shook his head and wiped both hands across the thighs of his slacks. He jabbed at the one again as he put the phone to his head. Some woman said, "Palo County Sheriff ’s Department. What is your emergency?"
"A guy. This guy," he said. "A guy’s been shot."
"What is your name and location, sir?"
"Well, we’re at this rest stop north of the Tastee-Freez on Seventy, somewhere past Ortonville. Way past Ortonville."
"Sir. Do you mean Oroville?"
"On the nose," he said. He searched with his free hand for a cigarette.
"Do you see a milepost marker, sir?"
"No. There’s these big pines right by the road. Kind of behind there."
"The rest stop north of the Tastee-Freez and north of Oroville. What’s his condition, can you tell me?"
Luntz said, "He got shot in the leg. How do you make a tourniquet?"
"Just apply direct pressure to the wound. Is he conscious?"
"He’s fine, honey. But the blood’s just pouring."
"Apply pressure. Put a clean cloth down and press hard on the wound with the palm of your hand."
"I’ll do that, yeah, but I mean—can you get here pretty quick?"
She started talking again, and he hung up.
He found his lighter and got his Camel going. Took several deep puffs, threw it aside.
He went across the rest stop under the evergreens to where Gambol sat propped against the left rear wheel of his Cadillac, looking very pale. Very large. He’d removed his white golfing hat. What a head. A huge head. His entire right pants leg was soaked black with blood. The white hat lay beside him.
Luntz bent from his waist and unbuckled Gambol’s belt, and Gambol opened his big foreign-looking eyes.
Luntz said, "I need your belt for a tourniquet."
He put his foot between the man’s big legs and dragged the belt free through the loops around his fat middle. "Look, brother," he said to Gambol, "I hope you understand."
Gambol breathed deep a couple times but didn’t seem able to speak.
Luntz said, "Am I supposed to sit around and wait for you to break my arm? When was the last time you got a broken bone?"
Gambol huffed and puffed. He felt for his hat beside him, brought it to his chest, and held it there. "Guess what?" he managed to say. "I got a busted thigh bone right this minute."
"I called 911, so just hang on."
With surprising energy, Gambol suddenly tossed away his white hat. The wind caught it, and it sailed a dozen yards into the trees. Then he seemed to lose consciousness.
Luntz dropped the belt in Gambol’s bloody lap. He parted the lapels of Gambol’s camel-hair sports coat and reached inside for Gambol’s wallet and pocketed it.
He hiked his slacks and squatted and felt under the car where the old gun had ended up, found the thing, and stood up straight, gripping the gun with both hands. He placed the muzzle against Gambol’s forehead and rested one thumb on the hammer.
Gambol seemed oblivious. His hands lay open either side of his outstretched legs, and his belly went up and down.
Luntz took his thumb from the hammer and let out his breath and lowered the gun. "Fuck. Put that around your leg. The belt, man. Wake up, man." Gambol’s face was like a stupid child’s as he grasped an end of the belt with each hand to drag it up under his bloody leg. "Through the buckle there, the buckle," Luntz said. "It’s a tourniquet," he said as he got in the car.
He settled himself into the Caddy’s white leather. He turned the key. He lowered the window and called out, "You better move, Gambol, because this Caddy’s about to roll."
He yanked the stick into drive and floored it out of the parking lot and, at the highway’s entrance, slammed the brake hard.
They’d be coming from the south, he guessed, from the hospital in Ortonville, Oroville, wherever. He turned north.
After he passed a highway patrol car heading toward him fast, lights whirling, he simply couldn’t drive any farther and hooked into a café’s parking lot on the outskirts of a town.
He put the Caddy behind the building and wiped his face with his sleeve. Sweat soaked his shirt and vest. He touched the dials of the climate control tenderly, stupidly, couldn’t make sense of them. Got out and removed the jacket and tie and vest and stood in the breeze, grabbed the doorframe, and bent double and vomited sour green liquid between his black shoes.
In the men’s room Luntz stood at the urinal a full minute, but nothing came out of him. He flushed anyway. He put his hands on the sink and bowed his head and breathed several times in and out before raising his eyes to the mirror.
Around 11:00 a.m. Anita Desilvera went to the movies with a half pint of Popov vodka in her purse. As she approached the building she caught a glimpse of the poster for this epic: The Last Real Champ.
She bought a ticket from the stone-faced man in the box and went inside. She purchased a large pink lemonade, and on her way into the auditorium she dumped half of it into the drinking fountain with a clatter of ice cubes. Made her way down the aisle in the dark to one of the front rows. She sat down leaving her coat on and bowed her face against the seat in front of her for several seconds, then raised it up weeping.
Opened the bottle and poured the vodka into her drink, kicked the empty under the next seat.
This movie appeared to be about prizefighters. Gigantic boxing gloves plowed great globs of sweat from foreheads and jowls in extreme close-up. A man alone two rows ahead of her jerked and grunted as he followed the action: "Huh! Hah! Hoh!"
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. She didn’t even have a key to her own house. 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.
The Packard Room lay two blocks from the theater. She walked briskly and breathed deeply. Outside the place she smoothed her gray skirt and straightened her coat, and as she entered the cool light of the greenhouse dining room she kept her shoulders back and made sure to smile with her entire face.
Hank Desilvera sat over in the corner looking rich. He smiled back at her like the Prince of All Tomorrow while dipping to get papers from his briefcase.
By the time she’d draped her coat on the empty chair and sat herself down, the meanest meal of her life lay at her place: The plea agreement. The letter of resignation. The waiver. Three copies of each.
She picked up the pen and signed. Flushing her life away took forty-five seconds.
Hank just laughed and put the stuff back in his briefcase beside his chair. He shrugged. He managed to make all this seem like a tough loss for her in what was sure to be an otherwise glorious season.
He could fuck you, frame you, and roll you onto the street—and expect you to be having fun.
"Tanneau has the rest of it," he said. Tanneau was the judge. The rest of it was the divorce papers.
"Hank," she said, "can’t we work on this? We can work this out. Look," she said, "I know how to forgive. I believe in forgiveness." She’d intended to sit all the way through this lunch, display a little style, but two minutes into it she’d already made herself a beggar.
"Not every day comes out symmetrical, Babylove."
"Don’t ever call me that."
"Babylove," he said, and the word went right down through her. "What about the Cajun chicken?"
"Yeah. Try the Cajun chicken."
"I’d love to! But I’ve got a conflict." She was already getting her coat on. "Will you mail me my copies?"
"Where to?" he said.
"What’s the address? Where do you live life these days?"
She stood staring at him while they both realized she had absolutely no answer to the question.
"And where are you off to at the moment?"
"I’ve got an appointment with the judge."
"The judge is out," Hank said.
"I’ve got an appointment." She grabbed up the papers and stuffed them in the pocket of her coat and left.
Tanneau had his offices in a renovated brick building, formerly a power station, now a high-rent fortress of commerce and law. He owned it. Despite all the vodka, the idea of seeing him had her heart pounding as she walked in the sunshine, in the aroma of evergreens, in all these atmospheres covering the stench. She would take the stairs, she would announce herself, she’d be ushered into the aura of his greatness, and he’d stand politely while she seated herself before his desk. He’d take his place behind it, fold his hands, lean toward her, and stare at her in mild confusion and sorrow, as if he couldn’t think of any reason why she’d come. He looked like a TV preacher with his big white coif, sentimental and telegenic. It could only have been a matter of time before he and Hank Desilvera had rubbed together and caught fire and started burning anybody fool enough to get close to either of them. And she’d gotten close to both: secretary to the judge, wife of the county prosecutor.
When she got to Tanneau’s office, the brand-new secretary claimed he wasn’t in. "I’m sorry—did you have an appointment?"
"He needed a signature."
But this new secretary, Anita’s replacement, a middle-aged woman in a chestnut frock, found nothing in the files for Anita Desilverio.
"Desilver-a. For Jesus’ sake. Mrs. Henry Desilvera? The divorce agreement?"
"Oh. God. Yes," her replacement said.
She had the copies in her in-basket. Anita signed all three and kept one. "Allow me." She dropped two copies in the basket marked out. Six months from now—that would be that. In a single morning with some documents and a little ink she’d made herself a vagrant, a felon, and a future divorcee.
She turned and slapped the judge’s door three times with the flat of her hand. "You know I’m out here."
Her replacement drew a quick breath. "I told you— the judge isn’t in."
Anita put both her hands flat against the door. She laid her cheek against its wood. "EIGHT HUNDRED BUCKS A MONTH. FOREVER."
Her replacement reached for the phone.
"If I have to pay restitution for the rest of my life, guess what? You can expect to hear me yell."
"Yell outside, then. The judge isn’t in there. He’s in the hospital."
"He went for a biopsy Friday, and they took him right into surgery."
"I hope he dies."
"Not yet. But I like the way you think."
Gambol permitted himself to rest on his back on the tarmac for one minute, checking this interval by his wristwatch, and then rolled himself over onto his belly and put his palms flat against the pavement either side of his shoulders. He rested thirty seconds before he raised himself to crawl forward on two hands and one knee, head hanging, taking ragged breaths, hauling his wounded leg toward the protection of the pines.
Propped against a tree trunk, he rested for two minutes. When he opened his eyes the branches overhead seemed to be rushing away into the sky.
He got his cell phone in his hand and punched Juarez on the speed dial.
"Yowsah. Mistah Gambolino."
"I need a doctor."
"So get a doctor."
"I need a friendly doctor. I’m shot, man."
"That fucking Jimmy Luntz."
"Jimmy Luntz shot me."
"I need a doctor. And I need a ride. I need him to come and get me. I need a ride."
"You hurt bad? You can’t drive?"
"The fucker took my car."
"Fuck ‘what.’ He shot me through my leg. My rightthigh. Through the bone, I think." "Your thigh?" "I got out to open the trunk, and he—bang, man." "Where are you?"
"Gambol, stay with me. Where are you?"
"I’m near Oroville."
"Where’s Ortonville? You in San Diego County or something?"
"Not Ortonville, man. Oroville. It’s on Route Seventy. Way the hell up here past Sacramento and all that."
"Which direction from Oroville? Like east, west, what?"
"I think north."
"North. Near Madrona? I got a friend in Madrona."
"Get me the fuck out of here."
"I’m on it. Where did he shoot you?"
"In the thigh. I told you."
"Jimmy Luntz? Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. He will die. My promise to you."
"You bet your ass."
"My promise and my gift to you. He’s dead."
Gambol shut his phone and dropped it into his breast pocket. He paused for half a minute before undertaking the effort of tightening the belt around his leg. The leg was numb, and he felt cold.
He laid his head back against the tree trunk and considered the movements to follow and reviewed his consideration carefully before letting himself tip rightward onto his elbow and wrestling himself, by stages, onto his belly. As he stiffened his arms, raised himself, and began crawling forward, the phone fell from his pocket, and he stopped. He went down onto his elbows and took hold of it with his mouth.
Gripping his bloody cell phone in his teeth he dragged himself several yards farther into the pines and scrub and lay on his belly while sirens approached and arrived.
When he heard voices getting near he struggled onto his side and saw the ambulance not far beyond the point where he’d entered the small stand of pines, and three paramedics talking with two uniformed cops, cursing and laughing. The patrolmen had parked their cruiser right over the large stain on the blacktop. Even from this distance Gambol could make out his own blood trail.
He turned onto his back, buttoned his cell phone into his jacket’s lapel pocket, and worked himself into position and dragged his leg farther away from the parking lot and lay in the mouth of a concrete culvert, where he waited, staring straight upward, blinking rapidly to keep himself conscious, while the two crews decided they’d been lured here as some kind of prank.
The crews didn’t stay long. As they passed over the culvert he heard their vehicles thumping on the highway above his head.
He had difficulty unbuttoning the inner pocket of his jacket and further difficulty working the buttons on his phone. He reached Juarez again. "Did you find somebody?"
"I’m close. Stay with me. I think we can get you out of there. I know a vet in Madrona."
"I’m down in a culvert. I can’t move my legs."
"Jesus, man, call an ambulance."
"Luntz called already. They came and went."
"Call them back!"
"Piss on that shit."
"Will you just call them back?" "I’m at the end of the blacktop, in some trees."
"Tell me again—Route 70."
"The rest stop by the Tastee-Freez north of Oroville."
"I’m writing it down."
"I’m in a culvert under the road. You got that?"
"Keep that phone by you."
"It’s right here. Send somebody."
"I’ll try. But what if I can’t?" "Then eat that fucker’s liver while he watches."
"It’s a promise."
Gambol closed the phone.
He managed to sit upright against the side of the culvert. The breeze coming through it felt icy. Vehicles rumbled overhead. He laid his cell phone in his lap and tore at his bloody pants leg and got a look at the purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh. He cinched the belt as tightly as it would go, but his hands were asleep and the wound seemed to well up and spill over, suck back, well up, spill over in a small but relentless way.
The phone rang. He got his fingers around it and raised it to his cheek. Juarez said, "I told you I knew somebody. I’m sending a vet."
Gambol opened his lips. Nothing came out.
"I found you a vet. Thirty minutes. Stay put, now, hear? Don’t run off."
Gambol failed to laugh. He tried saying, "Yeah," one more time, but his lips didn’t move.
He dozed, woke, had no idea how much time had passed, saw that a rivulet of his blood traveled away from him, moving over the dirt collected in the groove of the culvert, disappearing again under massed brown pine needles. He raised his hand to look at his watch but couldn’t get it up to his face.
"Hey—" he said, but very faintly. He himself could hardly hear it.
He put his fingers around the phone in his lap. The phone slipped away with a clatter that echoed in the concrete cylinder, and he let himself collapse toward it. He had his mouth by the phone. He had a finger on the button. He needed the finger to press it. He couldn’t make it happen.
No problem. If he could keep his eyes open, he wasn’t dead. Lying on his belly he stared at the red spectacle of his life as it traveled past his face and headed away from him through the dust. That’s all he needed to do now. He needed to keep seeing his blood.
In the café Luntz sat quite still with his elbows on the counter and a menu in his face.
"Are you going to order?" the waitress asked.
"Is there a Feather River Tavern around here?"
"I don’t know."
"Feather River Café, something like that?"
"I don’t think so. Are you going to order?"
"Ice tea," he said, and took a second trip to the men’s room.
He washed his hands and splashed his face with cold water and dried himself with hot air from a nozzle. He smoked half a cigarette in several rapid puffs and threw the rest in the toilet, went out the door, and lifted the receiver of the pay phone beside the restrooms.
Shelly answered and accepted the charges.
"Hey. It’s me," he said.
"What’s this collect?" Shelly said. "Are you someplace weird?"
"I’m near Oroville."
He heard her sigh.
"Listen. Shelly, listen. I got on a very messed-up ride with this guy I sort of know. A guy who intended to hurt me. And I think some people are probably coming to see you, Shelly. In fact, I’d count on it. Yeah."
"You mean cops?"
"Jimmy, Jesus Christ, Oroville? What’s Oroville? What happened?"
"I wish I knew."
"You don’t know?" "I wish I could tell you. But if anybody wants me—
just tell them you heard from me, I’m long gone, I’m never coming back."
He heard her breath in his ear, nothing else.
"Shelly, it’s a mess. I’m sorry."
"Well, sorry fixes everything, don’t it?"
"You gotta be mad as all get-out."
"Yeah, pretty much." "I’m sorry, buddy," he said, and hung up. "How much for the tea?" he asked the waitress as he sat down again.
"One fifty. Aren’t you going to drink it?"
"Let me have a pack of Camel straights, please."
Gambol’s wallet was so fat Luntz had to stand up to pry it out of his front pants pocket. Fat mostly with hundreds. He found a twenty.
"There might be a Feather River Inn," she said. "Kind of way up on the Feather River Road."
Luntz put the wallet away. "No longer an issue," he said.
Luntz sat in the car in the café’s parking lot listening to an AM sports talk show and counting his blessings: forty-three one-hundred-dollar bills and change, plus a wallet with a tab inside it that said "Genuine Calfskin," and lots of credit cards. The cards had to go. And probably the car. And definitely the gun.
In his trembling hands he fanned out the crisp new Franklins. It wasn’t much more than this that he owed Juarez in the first place.
Before he took off he cracked the Caddy’s trunk to see what else Gambol might have bequeathed him. Popped the lid and found a heavy white canvas duffel in there and unzipped it.
The duffel held a shiny chrome-barreled pistol-grip shotgun and five, six—seven small boxes labeled "00 Buck," with maybe eight or ten to a box.
A pale green squad car cruised the far edge of the parking lot. A county rig. Luntz zipped the bag and closed the trunk. First town he hit he bought a fifty-dollar phone card at the Safeway and called information at the pay phone out front. "Alhambra, California. Dooley’s Tavern. No. Wait a minute. Dooley’s is like a nickname. It’s O’Doul’s. D-O-U-L. In Alhambra."
The phone said, "For an additional charge of fifty cents, you’ll be connected."
He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply and blew smoke at the world. He took two clean breaths and punched the buttons.
"Let me talk to Juarez."
"Ain’t no Juarez here."
"He’s in the last booth with the Tall Man and that skinny girl the Tall Man hangs with who used to strip at the Top Down Club. Tell him it’s Jimmy Luntz. Say I owe him money."
Juarez came on the line and said, "Jimmy," in an experimental tone of voice.
"Guess what? I smoked old Gambol in a rest stop on Highway 70," Luntz said.
He could feel Juarez swimming around in his own head, getting a grip on this information.
"Jimmy, you say this is Jimmy," Juarez repeated.
"Try spending five hours in a car going nowhere, and suddenly, oh, come to think of it, let’s pull over here and get a piece of rebar from the trunk and give you a little compound fracture below the knee...You try it."
"Jimmy what. I mean, remind me of your last name," Juarez said.
"I told him let’s go see Juarez," Luntz said, "and discuss the problem, you know? But he wouldn’t allow it. As it is, I ended up defending myself."
"Sure, Jimmy. Could we talk about this? Could you maybe stop by?"
"Definitely not. Not in person. But I mean, I think you can show a little mercy, right?"
"This guy ain’t making sense today," Juarez said, maybe to the Tall Man. "You are living in a happy dream," he told Luntz, "if you think there is any such thing as mercy."
Luntz hung up.
Jimmy Luntz drifted in the copper-tone Caddy alongside some kind of river, continuing north on 70, smoking his Camel and dropping the ashes on the floor. Gambol didn’t let you smoke in his ride, but it wasn’t his ride anymore, was it?
Anita took her vintage Camaro—her beat-up near-worthless 1973 Camaro—out under the willows by the Feather River and put on Damn the Torpedoes and dropped the seat all the way back and lay there with both doors open.
When the tape reached its end and would have reversed itself, the silence was such a blessing she hit the button and killed the power. Her hearing came up: the hiss of the river in this wide slow spot, and the breeze in the branches, the tick of willow leaves.
Only now did she begin to notice that the day was warm and fine. Or had been. The sunset shone down the river now, and the willows cast long shadows.
She grabbed her overcoat, a big blue thing with a velvet collar, got out of the Camaro, and tossed the coat down on the riverbank in the last patch of sun. A little dirt and leaves—who cares? She lay back and looked up at blue emptiness.
"TRY THE CAJUN CHICKEN," she shouted at the sky.
Hearing a vehicle, she sat upright. Across the river a copper-colored Cadillac with one of those cushy-looking vinyl roofs pulled to a stop at a campsite among a bunch of cottonwoods. A man in black dress pants and a white T-shirt got out holding what seemed very much like a large revolver.
He reversed the weapon in his grip, holding it by the barrel, and tossed it underhand into the river, his gaze following its arc out to the middle of the water and then across, beyond, to meet Anita’s eyes watching him.
This guy didn’t know much about follow-through. His throwing arm wavered in the air and collapsed at his side, and he wiped his fingers on his black slacks. A slouchy guy, a skinny guy. He wasn’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the moment but undoubtedly possessed several.
He took in the fact of her without seeming particularly surprised, and then he got into his Cadillac and shut the door and started backing it up. But he wasn’t leaving. He edged his ride into a shady spot and turned off the engine.
Anita considered this situation a minute before getting up and taking the keys from the Camaro’s ignition and walking around to open its trunk. Inside 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 thirty 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.
The sound of the Cadillac’s engine came to her across the water, starting up and accelerating loudly as it took off—tires spinning, gravel rattling against the bark of trees—and then fading away.
Since sundown the temperature must have dropped twenty degrees. Luntz stopped in a movie theater parking lot in the town of Madrona and put on his shirt and white tux and sat listening to cool jazz on the Brougham’s radio. The radio’s clock display said 6:45.
When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember. He had no hunger. This, he told himself, is fear. So live with it.
He played with the radio on the AM band until he found a station that sounded likely—a young girl reading classified ads, mowers and pickups and appliances for sale by their owners. Then the local news. No gunplay reported. They mentioned the closing of a local supermarket.
Was Gambol a corpse? Were the cops after him, or not? How had everybody’s day turned out?
He tried the FM band. Jamaican rhythms. Somebody sang
Nobody get hurt
—and he listened carefully to the rest of the song before turning off the radio.
The Rex Theater was showing The Last Real Champ, according to the marquee. It was half over. Luntz bought a ticket anyway.
He sat leaning forward in the theater’s second row with his forearms on the seat in front of him and his chin on his hands. In the film a guy followed a woman out of a bowling alley and caught her by the elbow, and she turned, and he said, "I’d throw everything away for a woman like you."
And she replied, "Really?" and you could tell they were headed for a happy ending.
In the final seconds of the final round the same guy rallied to destroy an opponent inexplicably forty pounds beyond his weight class. The defeated champion lay on the canvas, staring straight upward.
Early in his teens Luntz had fought Golden Gloves. Clumsy in the ring, he’d distinguished himself the wrong way—the only boy to get knocked out twice. He’d spent two years at it. His secret was that he’d never, before or since, felt so comfortable or so at home as when lying on his back and listening to the far-off music of the referee’s ten-count.
After the film it was raining, a light, steady rain. Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy. Eight p.m., dark enough to ditch the Cadillac. He drove it over to the town’s tiny airport and parked and took the contents of his gym bag, the socks and underwear and toilet kit, and slipped them into Gambol’s duffel and threw the gym bag into the darkness. He took off his black dress socks and put back on his shoes and wiped the car down with the socks, inside and outside, and left the keys under the floor mat and walked with Gambol’s bag out of the parking lot and across a field of tall wet grass toward a couple of motels, the Ramada Inn and another one whose neon sign just said vacan. The anonymous establishment, made of fake logs and cheap in its soul, looked like a place that didn’t necessarily mess with credit cards.
He went over and booked a room. All wet, no car, no socks, paying cash.
The numbers on the radio read 10:10. Aces and zeroes. Luntz lay on his bed in the Guess What Motel on the Feather River Road with all the lights on listening to voices from a jerk-off movie in the next room.
Like the building’s exterior, the walls of this small room looked like logs. He put his hand out and discovered he touched real wood. He hadn’t known they still made things out of actual logs. He’d assumed all logs were fake.
He sat up and pointed the remote control at the television. Nothing happened. He slapped it against his palm and tried again unsuccessfully. He reached down and hefted Gambol’s duffel bag from the floor beside him and sat up with his feet on the floor and his left hand resting on the bag for a good two minutes before pulling the zipper all the way from one end to the other.
The weapon inside, with its pistol grip and its gleaming chrome barrel about eighteen inches long, looked untouchable. He didn’t touch it. He closed the zipper and stashed the bag under the bed and went out for some no-fake mountain air.
The rain had quit. He stood under a lot of stars, too many, more stars, in fact, than he’d ever seen. The chilly night air tasted clean and innocent. That lucky feeling came over him.
He walked across the parking lot to the lounge at the Ramada Inn and went directly to the pay phones by the restrooms in the back.
"Look," he said when he had O’Doul’s on the phone, "I know he’s sitting right there. Put him on. Tell him Luntz."
While he waited with his back to the lounge he heard the voices and smooth jazz. His hands were shaking and his throat was tight.
Juarez came on the line. "Luntz, is it now. Next thing you’ll want to be Mister Luntz. Mister Luntz, Esquire."
"Yeah—you know how many holes a double-aught-buck shotgun shell is going to make in your face?"
"Where you calling from?"
"From the pay phone right outside where you’re sitting."
"The fuck you are."
"I’m right out here on Fourth, señor, with Gambol’s Winchester under my big old shirt. I’m looking right at you."
Juarez was talking to somebody else now—probably sending the Tall Man outside to verify. "Where you from, Luntz—Luntzville? You ain’t nothing but a little puto."
"Gambol said something similar. Then I blew him up."
"Guess what? He didn’t die."
"Yeah, I didn’t think so."
"Listen to me, Luntz. Do you remember this fucker Cal from Anaheim, they called him Cal Trans?"
"Yeah, sure, I heard all about that stuff."
"Gambol and I sat down and made a meal of his balls. Anaheim oysters. Very tasty."
"I heard all about it, yeah."
"What about Luntzville? They make pretty good oysters there?"
Luntz said, "Best oysters in the world, Juarez," and hung up.
She woke on the riverbank with rain falling on her face. She got up and closed herself inside the car. Burrowed into the big blue coat. Woke some time later stiff and cold, having slept deeply and freely.
She found the key and fired it up. Turned on the AM radio and caught a country station drifting over from Sparks, Nevada, while the engine warmed and the defroster blew the mist off the glass. Giant night of stars out there. She headed onto the highway.
The man from Sparks said it was 10:00 p.m. She’d slept like the dead for nearly four hours. Eighteen months she’d spent fighting the judge and Hank, politicking the sheriff and the town council and harrying her lawyers and working the press, campaigning against the inevitable. Now it was over. Time for a long vacation. Not that she could afford even a short one.
At the lounge at the Ramada near the county airport she ordered a second tequila sunrise as the waitress delivered the first one. "And please, please," she said, "don’t turn on the karaoke."
"I’ll wait till eleven," the girl said.
"Just wait till I’m gone."
"Happy Hour starts at eleven."
"Then I’m working on a deadline."
Why do they call it happy, and why do they say it’s an hour? Happy Hour lasts two miserable hours. Aah, she thought—who am I talking to? And how many seconds till some asshole offers to buy me a drink and make me a satisfied woman?
Approximately eighteen seconds. The same skinny guy from the river—the one who’d tossed the gun to the currents—coming back from the pay phone and toilets, now sporting a checkered vest and white tux over his T-shirt. He paused beside her booth. Exactly the cheap bastard for whom the two-dollar window was invented.
"Hey, there," he said.
"Very suave. You silver-tongued devil."
"Are you a resident of this motel, or just a patron?"
"I’m not anything," she said. "I’m having a drink."
He dropped something, a quarter, stooped to pick it up, dropped it, picked it up again, and stood looking around him as if the room had changed drastically in the two seconds he’d had his eyes off it. Not drunk. A little too vibrant for drunk.
He perched himself on the very outermost corner of the seat across from her, saying, "I don’t usually just walk up and sit down with people."
"Help yourself. I was just leaving."
He peered at her, nearsighted or stupid, she couldn’t tell which, and said, "What is your nationality?"
"Are you a Spic?"
She stared. "Yeah. I am. Are you an asshole?"
"Mostly," he said. "What’s your name?"
He said, "Uh."
"Uh? What is Uh? Lithuanian or something?"
"You’re witty," he said. "My name’s Frank. Franklin."
"Frankie Franklin," she said, "I have a lot on my mind right now, and I’d like to be alone."
"No problemo," he said, and kind of oozed out of the booth and dematerialized.
The barmaid brought her a second tequila sunrise while she ordered a third. "Hey, miss," Anita said, "when do we get this karaoke rolling?"
Luntz watched it all unwind. The woman was the hit of the evening, at least in her own opinion. She sat on a stool she’d dragged from the bar and placed exactly next to the karaoke contraption, nobody daring to interfere with this spectacle—singing half a song and talking through the rest of it and selecting another through two hours of encores, but nobody called for them.
Excerpted from Nobody Move by Dennis Johnson.
Copyright © 2009 by Dennis Johnson.
Published in 2009 Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Meet the Author
Denis Johnson is the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.
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A fun, fairly forgettable read. But even Lite Johnson is better than most.
Denis Johnson has always been influenced by noir fiction, and even wrote a screenplay based for a film of a Jim Thompson novel, and a noirish novel, Resuscitation of Hanged Man. Nobody Move is a nice respite from his last novel, which was long and multi-layered and a thorough exploration of the Vietnam War. Nobody Move, written in the minimalist style of Jesus Son, is a straightforward thriller that begins with a botched extortion incident then evolves into a wild ride of revenge. The characters are well drawn and the ending a surprise. Not his best, but not as bleak as Jesus's Son. As a long time Johnson fan, I was satisfied. The reader feels the fun the writer is having with this homage to pulp. Please visit: timothyherrick.blogspot.com/
Nobody Move is a four part story originally published as a serial in Playboy Magazine over the course of four issues (Jul 09 - Oct 09). It was what Denis Johnson described as an effort to create a noir, crime story in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Now it's all here in this wonderfully jacketed hardcover. Denis follows the Elmore Leonard school of writing by jumping into the story right away, leaving pretty much all the back story to the dialogue and the visual, narrative cues. The result you get is a flowing caper novel, like Denis was flying by the seat of his pants for pretty much the whole time. Jimmy Luntz, a barbershop chordsmen lead with an unhealthy fetish for lottery tickets, meets Gambol, a bounty hunter working for Juarez, a gangster with very deep connections. Very simple premise but as the story moves along at its leisurely pace, we see things aren't so simple. It becomes apparent Luntz never had the money in the first place, neither does he have the means to get it. But soon, he encounters a beautiful woman named Anita who just happens to have the means to acquire a large sum of money. She quickly becomes the target of pretty much all of them, essentially making her the hook of this story. All of this delivered in clear-eyed prose peppered with Denis' usual sarcastic tone. He managed to meld the crime, noir voice with his usual style (as seen most prominently in Jesus' son) and it was a delight to read. And because he had a strict word limit, the prose had to be spare, which turned out to be especially suitable for the noir, crime style shown here. His descriptions were among the most imaginative and he has a very funny tongue-in-cheek style which keeps things humorous and light-hearted. Plot wise, it was very difficult to guess what's about to happen next, this could be largely due to the on-the-fly nature of this story. Nothing happened the way I expected it to. Just when I thought something was going to happen, something entirely different happened instead. For an on-the-fly story this could be done to great effect, but it also leaves lots of plot holes, and that's what I noticed about the story. Some threads were resolved very carelessly, simply because they had to be. And because Denis likes to pepper details around, you'll occasionally find some things very difficult to figure out, at least initially. For example, the relationship between Anita and his father, it took me till part four before I started flipping back to get the details on that. Was that a good or bad thing? I don't know. I chalked that down to probably Denis' flamboyant writing sensibilities. That said, I loved the story enough to warrant a re-read but I can't help but think if Denis could do much better if he didn't have the periodical constraints. He did a good job anyway and that's what I think deserves mention more than anything else. Read it.
If ever a group of people deserved each other, the characters in this novel pass the test. Well-written with insightful observations into human behavior, Nobody Move is an enjoyable read on a short flight.
great read have fun
Characters you don't care about, a tedious, reductive plot, ridiculous. Can't believe I spent any time at all with it.
The language is very offensive. Do not recommend.