Review – Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move
– by Gina Tessaro
For those who hefted the slab that was Denis Johnson’s Tree Of Smoke, Nobody Move (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pps) is a curious little runt of a follow-up that doesn’t waste any time getting to its blood-spattered conclusion. Previously serialized in four parts in Playboy magazine, Nobody Move is classic crime fiction in which characters fulfill well-worn genre expectations while Johnson does the thing he does so well: he feeds them killer lines. It’s the one thing about Johnson that you can always count on. This guy can write dialogue:
“Not yet, but I like the way you think.”
This is a typical exchange between femme fatale Anita Desilvera and the novel’s chain-smoking anti-hero Jimmy Luntz. The two of them meet cute in a bar and it doesn’t take long to establish that they can be of use to one another.
Luntz, who sings in a mediocre barbershop chorus, is also a compulsive gambler who owes a chunk of money to a minor league Bakersfield mobster named Juarez. Desilvera’s business partners, a soon-to-be-ex-husband and a crooked judge, have stiffed her out of her cut of a 2.3 million dollar embezzlement scheme. She’s exotically beautiful, he’s your basic Steve Buscemi type who tells Anita “my idea of a health trip is switching to menthols and getting a tan.” She’s rarely sober, he doesn’t drink. They bicker, have sex, and bicker some more, and try to get to the money before the bad guys come calling.
It’s not a complicated plot. There’s never any doubt who has the embezzled money, it’s just a matter of shaking down the husband and the judge before Juarez and his sociopathic bagman Ernest Gambol get their hands on Luntz. Johnson himself described Nobody Moves as cheap pulp fiction, and while it won’t put him in the running for another National Book Award, it’s a worthy homage to the likes of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain. There’s very little of Johnson’s characteristic elegant prose, but he maintains his dark sense of humour throughout. After cementing their alliance, Luntz wakes up Desilvera:
“Come here.” She sat beside him, both of them naked, and he kissed her, and the temperature felt better. “I’d like to try it sober.”
“Can we wait till after breakfast, when I’m not hung over?”
“Sure. Let’s go downstairs. What are we having?”
When a woman drinks this much, it shouldn’t be merely a quantifiable thing. However, true to the genre Desilvera is thinly drawn: a lush with legs. Her one comedic moment comes when she damsel-slaps an old man with his own colostomy bag in a scene Tarantino would kill to have written. The novel’s other female character, a nurse who ministers to Gambol after he’s shot in the leg, fits the other female archetype: the nice girl – a little older, a little overweight, willingly carnal no matter how much guff she has to take. It’s the dialogue that breathes life into these cartoon characters and keeps the pages turning, along with the urge to know where it’s all going to wind up in the end.
Coming on the heels of Tree Of Smoke, a lengthy Vietnam war novel, Nobody Move is a bit of a puzzler. But then, just because a writer is capable of sustaining an epic doesn’t mean he’s required to be expansive. The morality of war is ultimately elusive, but in crime fiction there’s no complicated world view. Someone is going to get the girl, someone is going to get the money, and someone is going to get a bullet in the side of the head. This one isn’t destined for the American canon, but it was a kind of fun while it lasted.