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 hard-boiled 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 It's not long before the white-tuxedoed barbershop singer has been replaced by someone resembling Humphrey Bogart with a scruffy two-day beard.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. --David Abrams
David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.
The brevity of this novel limits Johnson's scope, but he still has room for zingers…observations of human nature…and an extended gunfire sequence that plays like an outtake from Tree of Smoke. Nobody Move does not rank as a major work, but enjoy it for what it is: an idiosyncratic journey through familiar terrain.
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.]
After his award-winning Vietnam epic, Johnson takes a busman's holiday with this hard-boiled genre exercise. While his previous novel Tree of Smoke (2007) elevated Johnson to a new level of renown, here he seems to take great delight veering toward the gutter in a fast-paced, dialogue-driven crime novel that explores the baser instincts of some California grifters. Instead of more glamorous Los Angeles or San Francisco, Johnson sets his novel in the environs around Bakersfield, where petty gambler Jimmy Luntz finishes as an also-ran in a barber-shop chorus competition. Then he realizes he's an even bigger loser, as he stumbles into the too-obviously named Gambol, who has tailed Luntz to collect a gambling debt. Luntz leaves Gambol with a wound that Johnson describes as "a purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh" (Mickey Spillane has nothing on this novel) and escapes to encounter a ravishing divorcee who is also on the run. "You're interesting every way there is," he tells her, after drunken sex and a revelation concerning her involvement in the disappearance of two million dollars. She later tells him, "I like a bad man who hates himself." There are no good guys, or gals, in this novel. And there's no mystery, with police peripheral to the plot. Instead, Johnson seems to be paying homage to and subverting the conventions of the era of pulp fiction at its seediest. Originally published in Playboy, the novel serves as a stopgap before his return to greater literary aspirations. As one character tells another after learning about the death of a third, "In a hundred years we're all dead."There's some dirty fun here, but plenty of authors are better at this sort of novel.
“Displays a wicked sense of fun.” Sarah Weinman, The Washington Post
“A short, tight, grimly funny dark crime-comedy about losers, hustlers, alcoholics, murder, lowlifes, and a sexy broad with a heart of ice. I loved it.” Sam Coale, Providence Journal
“A hard-boiled, modern shoot-'em-up in which nobody's hands are clean but everyone gets great lines.” Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
“Reads like a Coen brothers movie waiting to happen, a cross between Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men.” Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald
“The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson's.” Jonathan Franzen
“We can hear Twain 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