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This Book Will Shoot You

Nobody Move

By Denis Johnson
FSG, 2009

On the heels of the hefty National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson has written Nobody Move, a slim noir novel sporting lowbrow characters with low-rent names. First serialized in four parts in Playboy, the novel’s requisite yet relatively tame sexuality is overshadowed by the pervasive violence of gunshot wounds, an arsenal of weaponry, and disfigured faces. Combine the humor of Johnson’s cult classic Jesus’ Son with the numbing violence of Tree of Smoke, and you wind up with Nobody Move. It feels like Johnson’s blowing off steam. After the massive weight of Tree of Smoke, who can blame him? Thankfully, if readers aren’t expecting anything more than a crime novel with witty, crass dialogue and a tightly wound plot with autobahn-quick action, there are a lot of simple pleasures to be had.  

Nobody Move revolves around Jimmy Luntz, a name that fits snugly around a man with a history of debts due to a weakness for gambling. Improbably enough, the novel opens with Jimmy as a member of a Barbershop Chorus in a singing competition, a participation that doesn’t matter for the rest of the book, but aptly symbolizes Luntz’s temporary membership in the civilized world just before he’s plucked out by the henchman Garbol, collecting for his boss Juarez. From there, it’s a rapid descent into seediness, mayhem, and double-crossing broads. Luntz hooks up with Native American beauty Anita, who’s never let a drink go empty before ordering a second, and who may have embezzled 2.3 millions dollars from a school fund (she corrects anyone who dares to round it off to an even two million). They have brothels-worth of sex (She “made love like a drunken nun”), try to figure out how to nab the money, and plot high-handed revenge.

The jacket copy promotes the book as an homage to and a variation from the genre. That’s half right. It’s certainly an homage to noir. The variations are scarce, though. Mostly, the book rises to the level of the best practitioners of the genre, such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with razor-sharp dialogue, compressed scenes, and gripping characters. But structurally and philosophically, Nobody Move is not subverting the genre in any significant way. There’s not even much of an attempt to force the dialogue to the realm of double-meaning or broader metaphoric implications, except for rare phrases that skim along the surface of deeper intentions: “The dead come back. Death isn’t the end…. At night you can see them standing across the river.” Compared to other literary practitioners who’ve dipped into similar genres for a book or two, like John Banville under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (the latter a fine example of pushing a genre), Johnson sticks closer to a formula. But let’s be honest. Who cares? This is delightful for what it is—a crime-ridden thrill ride.

Denis Johnson

At its most eye-catching, Johnson’s prose has a poetic brevity, such as the description of “Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy.” And he uses back story with ease to capture a character’s personality:

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.

Most of the dialogue stays under a line or two, to fuel the movement. It’s full of snap and crackle, like in this scene, where Luntz is helping Anita escape from FBI agents:

“Hell of a lot of trees,” he said.

“That’s why they call it the forest. I hope we’re not going camping.”

“We are if I can’t find this place before dark.”

She pushed the button and her window came down and the wind thudded in the car as she pitched her empty and listened for the small musical sound of the bottle shattering behind them.

“You’re nice,” he said, “when you’re sober.”

“Have you ever seen me sober?”

“I think I did for about a minute.”

Even Luntz is more complex than at first glance. What separates him from the ostensible villains, and what earns him our support despite his foibles, is his tendency toward kindness. In two places in the beginning of the book he exercises what he calls pity and mercy. In a way, it’s his Achilles heel, since his extensions of grace always come back to bite him. Unfortunately, he happens to overcome this “fault” later on in the novel, which temporarily feels like a success until you realize it was the only thing separating him from those he despised.

Inevitably noir deals with justice, and the ability or inability of the wielders of justice to set things right, in the same way every detective story, whether intentionally or not, makes a statement about epistemology. Here, justice is confounded. The Judge isn’t exactly a model practitioner of his profession, as he frames his racketeering on others (he’s also called the “Father of Lies.” Never a good sign when you share nicknames with the Devil). Even though the reader’s sympathies lie with Luntz, when the misdeeds are tallied up, he’s no better than the worst. So it’s not a matter of meting out justice to the well-deserving as much as a muddle of figuring out who truly deserves it, and the recognition that probably everyone deserves the worst. Instead of justice, we’re left with punishment. Empty brutality is shared equally. Hardly encouraging, but certainly realistic.

The title, other than being a stock phrase for the genre and acting as foil for this kinetic book, tips a hat to Yellowman, the Jamaican musician and DJ who wrote the song Luntz listens to: “Nobody move / Nobody get hurt.” Unfortunately, neither Luntz nor other characters heed the cautionary lyrics. But if they did, it wouldn’t be a very entertaining book.

One last note: Consider ponying up the extra dough for the hardback. The brilliantly designed dust jacket by Phil Pascuzzo, who also designed graphics for Jesus’ Son, has six gunshots through the Os in the title and author’s name, boring through to the Lichtensteinesque cover of a smoking man with a smoking gun. Not only does it perfectly capture the novel’s pulpy spirit, it turns heads on the street. No one can resist a cover this alluring, and it provides a rallying cry against those pressing for paperback originals. Just won’t happen when dust jackets this beautiful are being produced.

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John Matthew Fox is a writer living in Los Angeles. He blogs about novels and short stories at BookFox.

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