Reading Denis Johnson's new thriller, "Nobody Move," one almost senses the author luxuriating in the wanton pleasures of pulp fiction. And he probably deserves the break, after spending (reportedly) the better part of 10 years writing his 700-plus-page Vietnam War epic, "Tree of Smoke."
That novel contained scenes of combat that left me slack-jawed. And there was no denying the accumulative power of its epic-length tale. But it was also dense, digressive and bewilderingly complex. It contained a multitude of characters, as well as constantly shifting points of view.
Compared to "Tree of Smoke," "Nobody Move" is lean, unencumbered with digression, and remarkably simple. Immersed in all varieties of sinful behavior, its storyline is actually similar to Cormac McCarthy's recent "No Country for Old Men."
Both novels open with impulsive acts of theft and then track the gory consequences. This is the classic set-up for crime fiction. Desperate men, in need of cash, find their pot of gold at the end of a gun barrel -- or a trail of corpses. Haven't we read that book before? The difference this time is that it's rarely been told in more eccentric fashion.
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In the opening scene, Jimmy Luntz is about to take the stage. As a member of the "Alhambra California Beachcomber Chordsmen," Jimmy's performing in a barber shop chorus competition. (I've read a thousand thrillers, and I'm reasonably sure none of their main characters belonged to a barber shop chorus.)
Jimmy is also an ex-boxer, but he probably didn't inspire fear in his opponents: "His secret was that he'd never, before or since, felt so comfortable or so at home as when lying on his back and listening to the far-off music of the referee's ten-count."
Although violence always has a way of finding Jimmy (leaving the barber shop competition, he's accosted by his bookie's enforcer), "Nobody Move" is a crime novel that defies its genre at every turn.
The first sign is the hallucinatory manner in which almost everything is described. (This is no surprise to fans of Johnson's most famous novel, the trippy masterpiece "Jesus' Son.")
"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.
Even the "bad guys" speak in a different register: "You are living in a happy dream if you think there is any such thing as mercy."
As for "mercy" - that's the last thing Jimmy Luntz expects to receive, once he gets on the wrong side of his bookie, Juarez. Jimmy's decision (if such an act of insanity could be called a "decision") to shoot his bookie's enforcer in the leg and then make off with his Caddy, precipitates the awful crime wave that comprises much of "Nobody Move."
Johnson is terrific at describing scenes of mayhem, but it's his characters (and their curious word choices) that stay with you. There is even time for intimacy (of the cheap motel variety), as Jimmy hitches his destiny to the beautiful, troubled Anita. It turns out she is also on the run from very bad men. However, she's more experienced around firearms than the hapless Jimmy.
Luntz said, "You're the sure shot. In my whole life, I've fired exactly one bullet."
Anita said, "I can knock bottles off a fence all day. But I'm not the guy who shot a guy."
"Nobody Move" (cool title, though no one utters that familiar warning anytime in the story) is fast, sometimes shocking, and deeply strange.