By Beth Harrington.
I remember being fifteen years-old and reading Jesus’ Son in the back of my tenth grade American literature class while the rest of the class watched the movie adaptation of one of Arthur Miller’s plays. The interconnected collection of semi-autobiographical stories was (and still is) a recognized counterculture classic about the gritty depths to which a subset of humanity can plunge, yet is inlaid with a delicate and decidedly untrite message of hope. Thus, I have always had a place of affection in my heart for Denis Johnson as this memory makes me seem more like the hip, alternative outcast I pretended to be as opposed to the sullen, dowdy outcast I most likely was.
After winning the 2007 National Book Award for his epic Vietnam War-era novel Tree of Smoke, Johnson is back with Nobody Move, a brief crime-noir novel that was published in four installments in Playboy last year.
Nobody Move reads like a novel that might have been a screenplay for a film from the era it harkens back to. You can practically hear the soundtrack cue subtly as Jimmy Luntz, an everyman with gambling debts, emerges from a barbershop chorus competition. The music grows more ominous as a henchman of the man he owes money picks him up in a Cadillac to take the proverbial ride. In the car, Jimmy finds the gun. “‘The thing about a gun […] is it can just go off’” or so Jimmy tells Anita Desilvera, the stunningly beautiful, reservation-born Indian, and soon-to-be ex-wife of a powerful attorney. He meets her in a bar after hightailing it from the scene of his crime in the Cadillac. Anita has her own demons to battle, namely that her attorney husband and a prestigious judge have framed her for the embezzlement of two-point-three million dollars, reasoning that she would be let off more easily than they would be.
Meanwhile, Gambol, the man Jimmy s hot, comes to in the home of a former Gulf War army nurse who still works under the auspices of her ex-husband Juarez, the bigwig who is after Jimmy. The novel twists and turns down winding California roads in fast cars, guns and money acquired then exchanged. The entire time, the reader knows that someone will wind up rich and others will wind up dead, most likely from gun shots fired without the blink of an eye.
Despite its decidedly retro feel, the novel takes place in the modern-day era, and Johnson imbues it with details to suggest its time period. Juarez, the exotically evil and foreign head honcho, is actually an Arab going by a Mexican alias. One supposes that being an Arab in the twenty-first century is the equivalent, xenophobia-wise, of being a Mexican in the first half of the twentieth century. The living arrangement of a pair of greasy bikers who share a trailer together is acknowledged vaguely: “‘If it’s love, it’s love’” and nobody says more than that. In essence, Nobody Move is like a black-and-white film in which the characters walk around carrying cell phones and keep electronic bank accounts but aren’t quite sure how to use them.
The main thesis of Nobody Move seems to be that even the most ordinary and unremarkable persons have a steel core of ruthlessness running through them, rendering them capable of the most heart-stopping atrocities when provoked. In comparison with Jesus’ Son, Johnson is arguably more pessimistic in his portrayal of human nature in this latest work. Whereas his older collection implies that even the lowliest and most lost of souls can find salvation in humble ways — “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them” — the moral of Nobody Move is that the losers will win, but that there were never any good guys playing on either team. It is a cynical view, likely adapted from the genre it imitates in which the town sheriff has impulses just as dark as the criminals he pursues. However, the novel’s focus is circumspect enough that it is unclear whether Johnson is making a broad statement about the human condition in general or simply those who descend to the bottom of the food chain.
Johnson practices deceptive word economy throughout the novel. His sentences are short; his dialogue quick and to the point. He provides copious details about his characters’ actions and material worlds, while refraining from shedding light on their mental interiors. Thus, the reader is more likely to find out what a character is smoking or drinking than what he is thinking. Coupled with its fast pace, at times this meticulous detailing may confuse readers, causing them to dismiss as trivial particulars that are important but slyly stated. By the end of the novel, readers may just be eager for the conclusion — regardless of what it is — to happen and be over. Nobody Move may not be suitable for readers eager to delve into characters’ thoughts and feelings. Then again, if you are looking for a book with an emotional core, you probably shouldn’t be reading a book that takes its cues from one of literature and film’s most sinister genres. Overall, Nobody Move is a clever salute to literary noir by one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary writers.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Beth Harrington resides in Boston, Massachusetts. Her nonfiction has appeare in BookSlut and Venus(online). Her fiction has appeared in Fifth Street Review (now-defunct), Kaleidoscope: Emmanuel College Magazine, and Cherry Bleeds: Literary Transgressions as well as its 2005 print anthology. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and was the 2007 recipient of the James T. and Ellen M. Hatfield Memorial Prize for a short story at Smith College.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 21st, 2009.