Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1974
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? I’m lucky now.”
Such dialogue may not represent the popular conception of literature, but from Ernest Hemingway to the present it has shaped the matter of literary reality. As the first section of the novel ends, an aura of menace enters the narrative: Gambol recovers from his gunshot wound, assisted by a woman with medical capability, asserting “I need a car. And I need a gun.” Gambol prepares to pursue Luntz, driven by a very personal vision of a social order that requires restoration, and Johnson expands the dual-track narration that was initiated to follow the separate paths of Luntz and Anita by using the cinematic technique of continual cross-cutting to create a feeling of tension that accelerates the narrative pace, reducing exposition while moving deeper into the consciousness of the characters.
Although Luntz is meant to be the focus of readers’ interest and empathy at this stage, Johnson is disinclined to permit total identification with anyone. Gambol, who has been portrayed with no appealing features, is not made any more likeable but is humanized to the extent that he cannot be dismissed as a “villain.” Gambol’s exchanges with Mary, the combat veteran Army nurse who works for crime boss Juarez, set up a relationship that parallels the evolving pairing of Luntz and Anita. As Gambol rambles obscenely through stages of clarity and drug-induced confusion, Mary’s direct, no-nonsense estimate of everything is an appealing contrast to the pseudophilosophic self-reflection of the other characters. Anita demonstrates a proclivity for a kind of surreal vagueness that she resorts to when events are overwhelming. Luntz insists on framing everything within a context of qualification. These character traits are part of Johnson’s method for deepening the structure of their minds and is one of the signatures of his work. There are passages that have the flavor of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), as Luntz and Anita seem to be searching for enlightenment as much as pursuing the money hidden in a scheme not yet explained.
The characters’ increasingly self-referential comments on their own actions have some of the flavor of the retrospective narration familiar in film noir, but stretched into a discourse of comic absurdity that stems from their inclination to see themselves and their gestures as a part of a dramatic noir tableau. One of the basic motifs of the crime novel is an elaborate plan that is originally conceived simply to gain money, but that becomes laden with personal or ulterior motives. In Nobody Move, characters talk about making off with enough of the 2.3 million dollars in stolen money to retire from criminal enterprises. Aside from Mary, however,these characters seem incapable of living any other way.
Luntz competes with “THE ALHAMBRA CALIFORNIA BEACH-COMBER CHORDSMEN” in a local contest as the novel opens. He preposterously likens that sensation to being in war, but his real excitement is the ultraviolent contest with Juarez and Gambol that occupies him. Johnson shows that all of the characters are, like soldiers in combat, at their most vividly alive when they are in danger. The challenge to these men does not come from the law, which is regarded as existing in another realm, to be treated with outward respect and avoided. Rather, their central conflict is with other criminals, and through this conflict they gain status, stature, and self-regard. Juarez and Gambol enjoy proclaiming that they favor a particular gruesome procedure for exacting revenge. The punishment they describe may be fabricated: The story itself is enough for them to exert control over others. The extremity of the claim expresses the lengths to which they are willing to go to maintain the rules of their game and their social order. This strategy does not work, however, on a wild card such as Luntz, who cannot predict even his own actions.
Almost as a set piece, Gambol sojourns, wounded leg sutured, carrying a cane, through the night to the restaurant where Luntz is trying to hide. The scene is informed by such gripping detail that it almost seems to overload the senses. Johnson choses to make this episode a full-scale, devastatingly realistic depiction of gun violenceperhaps because Gambol always operates this way, while Luntz, who wreaks more havoc than anyone else in the novel, acts almost in an instinctive response to an impossible situation. Following this episode, Johnson does not feel that he has to cover every detail of the very violent actions that lead toward the novel’s conclusion. Luntz is seen completely in the grasp of Juarez and his associate the Tall Man. Then, the narrative cuts (as in a film) to a parallel track and, without any intervening explanation, cuts back to Luntz holding a gun on Juarez, who is now driving a stolen Jaguar at Luntz’s command. It is as if Johnson has decided he has done enough with standard motifs and structure and is prepared to complete the narrative according to his own designs.
The invitingly ambiguous last story in Jesus’ Son offers a degree of hope for the protagonist, but Johnson ends Nobody Move differently: In separate sections, each of the characters who are still alive is given a kind of envoi. Luntz, a compulsive conversationalist, brings the careening car to a stop and says, ostensibly to Juarez but more as a comment on the situation, “Wow. I think I just shot you.” Gambol drives by and thinks “Accidents were none of his business, gawking just another symptom of the human disease.” His future is probably the most promising, as Mary greets him “Ernest. I never saw you smile before.” Anita exacts her apparently justified revenge for her mistreatment by the power structure and then leaves for the territory, perhaps ratifying rumors about her American Indian heritage. In a cyclical return to the novel’s opening, Luntz ambles along, regaining the amiable demeanor that is his default mode, chatting with an attendant at a convenience store who suggests he needs to wash his clothes. “Where’s the river?” he asks. “Right over there a half a mile” she says. “Is it cold?” he asks. “It’s cold. But it won’t kill you,” she tells him, which is a summary of most of what Luntz has experienced. The water as a vehicle for purifying a damaged soul is not beyond consideration, but Johnson does not push the point. The fact that Anita has also headed toward the river might imply a mutual destiny for her and Luntz, or might not.
The title of the novel, Nobody Move, suggests a command given by a person in charge to a disparate gathering in a threatening situation. However, it occurs on page 30, when Luntz hits the FM band in Gambol’s car and hears a Jamaican rhythm“Somebody sang ’Nobody Move, Nobody get hurt’”which is sound advice that none of the characters is ever even close to taking. Although some of the novel’s tight structure and frequent erotic passages might be a product of Johnson writing it for Playboy as a serial on a publishing schedule, its ultimate form, quirky and convincing characters, and dazzling dialogue are all Johnson’s own.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 46
Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 5.
Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 4 (February 15, 2009): special section, p. 6.
Library Journal 134, no. 3 (February 15, 2009): 94.
New Statesman 138, no. 4953 (June 15, 2009): 50-51.
The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 2009, p. 6.
The New Yorker 85, no. 17 (June 8, 2009): 113.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 2 (January 12, 2009): 26.
The Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 2009, p. 21.
Vanity Fair, May, 2009, p. 60.
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