The conventions of the classic genres of prose fiction are formed by the most striking and memorable books that declare and define their fundamental elements. Expectations concerning character, setting, and narrative tone are eventually established under the stress of what works, permitting immediate recognition and an acceptance of authenticity by readers. Inevitably, however, conventions become confining, and further work in the genre can become stale and predictable. To reinvigorate the genre, both an easy familiarity with its elements and a distinctive individual style are minimum requirements.
Denis Johnson, an author very highly regarded by a relatively small group of people then familiar with his work, reached a much larger audience when his long novel Tree of Smoke (2007) won the National Book Award. What made his books especially appealing prior to the award was his unique style and oblique perspective, which resulted in the linked short stories of Jesus’ Son (1992) becoming an intensely admired, almost private pleasure. Johnson’s venture with Nobody Move into what the publisher calls “one of our most enduring and popular genresthe American crime novel” has some of the features that made Jesus’ Son so compelling and shows just how fresh and revealing a well-worn path can be when it is followed by a writer who rarely sounds as though he is imitating anyone.
Johnson’s antic outlook is perfectly suited for a narrative that closely tracks, and often advances within, the consciousness of characters who are separated from the familiar social strata of American society. He is fascinated by the “bottom dogs” who inhabit realms both forbidding and intriguing. He has such a solid grasp of the styles of speech ofhis characters that much of the novel is composed of extended stretches of dialogue that seem simultaneously startling and natural. These passages illuminate the erratic psychological foundations of the main characters.
The novel’s central character, a small-time gambler named Jimmy Luntz, is introduced by an omniscient narrator in an unfolding present tense that almost imperceptibly shifts to Luntz’s point of view. The narrative continues primarily in that mode, with terse interpolations to provide succinct details of Luntz’s meeting with Ernest Gambol, a man who has come to collect money that Luntz borrowed to pay gambling debts. Luntz, ever-alert for an opportunity, is wary of “that lucky feeling” that “had let him down before.” He cannot directly refute Gambol’s declaration “You can’t make a payment,” which is a summary of his situation in life. He has survived thus far by strategies of negotiation that alter the terms of agreements. “People will be missing me,” he tries, but realizing that Gambol is not convinced, Luntz shoots Gambol with Gambol’s gun. In a perplexing and strangely affecting moment, he says to Gambol “Look, brother, I hope you understand,” and calls 911 before departing with Gambol’s wallet, duffel, car, and gun.
Johnson thus introduces a character whose unpredictable but plausible actions are likely to engage readers and placed him in a world that is seedy, somewhat sordid, and rife with the promise of danger and adventure. The author gives then Luntz an appropriate partner, as Anita Desilvera enters the narrative going through the final stages of an unpleasant divorce. Anita’s first appearance is in a movie theater at 11:00 a.m. since “There was no other place for the wife of the Palo county prosecutor to gulp down booze and grieve.” In spite of her predicament, Anita has a feisty spirit of self-preservation and a fast mind and mouth. Seeing herself without illusions, she admits that “In a single morning with some documents and a little ink she had made herself a vagrant, a felon and a future divorcee.” Her car, a “beat-up near-worthless 1973 Camaro” is an emblem of her life, and it parallels Luntz’s complementary a self-assessment as he enters a motel “All wet, no car, no socks, paying cash.”
Their separate narratives track Anita and Luntz as they warily eye each other then join as two loners looking for some solace, first in a saloon and then in a motel. The conventionality of the scene is alieviated by Johnson’s use of noir tropes“Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy” energizes a standard settingwhile spot-on dialogue enlivens the pair as they individually decide to take a chance on company for the evening. “Frankie Franklin, are you a loser?” “Not when I’m lucky.” “When was a guy like you ever lucky?” He pulled her blouse over her head and a couple of buttons popped loose and flew at his face. “Sh*t, honey,” he said, “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?...
(The entire section is 1974 words.)