Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move and the Pleasures of Postmodern Crime Fiction

There’s an admirable precision to Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, a dark and funny crime caper originally serialized in Playboy over four months in 2008, now available in trade paperback from Picador. Johnson limits himself to a handful of characters, a span of a few days, and four fifty-page segments to tell his story. Johnson’s economy resonates from his tight plotting and structure down to his cool, concise sentences. He works in noir archetypes, to be sure–there’s the hard-luck loser in over his head, the femme fatale with a troubled past (and present), the sadistic thug and his moll, and the sinister mastermind. Johnson’s feat here is to present all of this in a manner that’s simultaneously invigorating to the genre but also a confirmation of its pleasures.

Consider Johnson’s erstwhile protagonist, Jimmy Luntz. The name alone seems to tell us everything about this guy, a lousy gambler who spends much of his time on the run. He owes money to the wrong guys, and when a gorilla appropriately named Gambol comes to collect, Luntz makes the mistake of shooting but not killing him. Johnson traffics in immediacy in Nobody Move–there’s not a lot of backstory or dwelling on psychological motivation, thankfully–but he does offer up the occasional nugget, like this one:

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 listening to the far-off music of the referee’s ten-count.

And that’s all the personal history we really need about Luntz. It’s the gaps in the story that are so engaging, that force the reader to play the role of detective in this crime story. To this end, Johnson starts the story in media res, with Luntz leaving a disappointing competition performance of his barbershop chorus. He spends much of the novel’s first half still in his white tux. The novel’s end — well, I won’t spoil the end, of course — but let’s just say that the end of the novel finds our characters poised for further nefarious adventures. But there I go, getting ahead of myself. A little more on plot: Gambol, wounded by Jimmy, finds himself being nursed by a woman named Mary. Their nascent relationship is one of the highlights of the book, funny and cruel, a bizarre study in unlikely romance. Meanwhile, Jimmy hooks up with Anita Desilvera, a dark-eyed bombshell with a serious drinking problem and a series of upcoming court dates. They complicate their problems by going on the lam together. Gambol eventually comes looking for Jimmy (he wants to literally eat his testicles) and drama and danger ensue.

Denis Johnson is arguably among the best living American writers today, having produces no fewer than two masterpieces (Tree of Smoke, one of my favorite books of the past ten years, and Jesus’ Son, one of my favorite books ever). So when he wrote a genre fiction piece under a deadline for Playboy, many critics and readers wondered what he was up to. Was he serious? How serious were we supposed to take the work? Did he need the money? The book itself offers some answers. Nobody Move is fantastic as a genre exercise, witty, dark, lean, and hard-boiled, transcending the bad or formulaic writing that can plague the genre’s novels but never trying to transcend its tropes. Put another way, Johnson here demonstrates that he can master a genre that is not his, and that he can do it under the constraints of space and time. That’s quite a feat, if you think about it, especially if you compare Nobody Move to Thomas Pynchon’s recent genre exercise, Inherent Vice, or the detective-centered works of Jonathan Lethem like Motherless Brooklyn and Gun, With Occasional Music. Pynchon’s work is in many ways a covert, loving goof on the genre, but it’s still more or less a “Thomas Pynchon” book. Lethem likes the idea of writing crime noir, but he wants to subvert it, mash it up with sci-fi, see it as a form of post-modern allegory. Roberto Bolaño is almost painfully aware of this in his fiction–his narrator in Distant Star gets to play at being a detective for a bit, but finds that it’s not nearly as fun as he would like it to be. The Savage Detectives views literature and art as a crime scene to puzzle out. And 2666 . . . well, you know about 2666 (hang on wait, you don’t know about 2666? You should really get that taken care of). Or take James Ellroy’s postmoderinst crime fiction, which owes, unwittingly or not, as much to Don DeLillo as it does to Raymond Chandler. These are all great writers, of course. But I think contrasting what they are trying to do with what Johnson is trying to do is instructive.

There’s a purity to Nobody Move, to its utter willingness to simply be what it is–and many folks won’t like that; they may even accuse Johnson of slumming. Perhaps they think it’s easy to write a tight, funny crime novel. Perhaps they know it’s not, and they think that Johnson is being solipsistic, or even mercenary. In any case, Nobody Move will probably stand outside of Johnson’s canon. And that’s unfair. Cinematic and highly visual, it recalls some of the Coen brothers’ finest work, like Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There, and even Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (minus the messy sprawl). Perhaps the best thing about Nobody Move–other than the sheer pleasure of reading it over a few afternoons, of course–is that it might motivate readers to pick up Jesus’ Son or even Tree of Smoke. For many readers, especially young readers, genre is a vital gateway to what many of us prejudicially call “more serious” literature. So pick up Nobody Move, read it, love it, and then pass it on to someone who needs to know about Denis Johnson. Recommended.

Nobody Move is available in trade paperback from Picador on April 24, 2010.

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