NOBODY MOVE by Denis Johnson

Book Quote:

“How doped up are you?”


Book Review:

Reviewed by Mary Whipple (MAY 10, 2009)

Nobody Move, Denis Johnson’s first novel since his National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke in 2007, is a complete change of pace from that novel, which focuses on the Vietnam War.  Here, Johnson sets his novel in Northern California in contemporary times, creating a noir study of drug-addled, alcoholic criminals who don’t have a clue about reality as they seek riches and revenge.

Full of maiming, torture, and gunshot wounds, all of which are gushers, and several of which are fatal, Nobody Move gives new life to “pulp fiction,” a kind of dressed up, somewhat literary, pulp fiction–at least stylistically.  For however superficial the story may be, however dark and violent the action may be, and however stupid and sociopathic the characters may be, Johnson is a writer with immense gifts of description, dialogue, and narrative compression, and he manages to create a vivid story with no wasted words.

Jimmy Luntz, a member of a barbership singing group, is heavily in debt to loan sharks when he is picked up by Gambol, an enforcer.  While Gambol is driving Jimmy through the countryside on his way to meet his fate, Jimmy takes advantage of a momentary lapse by Gambol, shooting him in the leg, pushing him out, and stealing Gambol’s wallet, his gun, and ultimately, his car.  While getting rid of the gun he used on Gambol, Jimmy meets Anita, a woman whose crooked husband, a Palo County prosecutor, framed her for a $2.3 million embezzlement for which a judge has ruled that she must pay $800 a month in restitution for the rest of her life.   Jimmy and Anita team up to try to get the money back, wanting to wreak vengeance, not seek justice.  In the meantime, Gambol is rescued from the culvert, from which he managed to make a cell phone call, by Mary, a former army nurse sent to bring him back to health by the syndicate.

As Jimmy and Anita try to avoid their pursuers, the violence ratchets up.  Everyone wants revenge on everyone else.  The syndicate still wants their money back, Gambol wants (literally) to dine on Jimmy’s private parts, and Anita wants her husband’s head.  The world of these twisted characters is, as Hobbes has observed, “nasty, brutish, and short.”  All of them are sociopaths, none of them think twice before shooting, and none of them have any regrets after they shoot.

The novel, published as a four-part serial in Playboy Magazine during the summer and fall of 2008, is also full of graphic, often violent sex.  “Seizing the moment,” the driving force for these characters, gains new meaning here in the dark and dreary world they inhabit.

Johnson, who is also a poet and playwright, makes this dark world vibrate with life, creating memorable descriptions which add to the mood:  “The crescent moon lay directly overhead, and on such a night the river’s swollen surface resembled the unquiet belly of a living thing you could step onto and walk across.”  On a rainy night one sees “ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy.”  And on a good day,  “The morning seemed lit by a blowtorch.”  Even short character sketches are spot on:  Jimmy himself was “your basic bus-station javelina, but a nice enough guy.”

The dialogue sparkles, revealing character, mood, and relationships in only a few words:

He:  “[The man] is dead.  Gambol blew his head off.”

She:  “In a hundred years we’re all dead.”

He:  “Did you ever know anybody who got murdered?”

Beside him she was white and pale.  She:  “The dead come back.  Death isn’t the end.”

He:  “Let’s be optimistic..and assume that’s bullshit.”

Fun to read, this slight novel makes no pretense of being anything but a noir story about marginal characters leading dark and thoughtless lives, characters in the grip of their emotions at the expense of their reality.  They are all living for themselves and trying to stay alive, and they have no sense that life offers anything more than that.  A student of Raymond Chandler when he was a Master’s student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Denis Johnson has learned his lessons well.  The book is what it is, he seems to say.  Take it or leave it.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 61 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 28, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Denis Johnson
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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May 10, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: California, Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Noir, y Award Winning Author

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