The deaths in the last half-decade of Bellow, Mailer, and Updike have left us running a deficit in Great American Writers. What we’ve gained (admittedly a cheap trade) is a newly entertaining parlor game: Can you name the living national canon? Philip Roth and Toni Morrison are probably gimmes. But who else? Don DeLillo? Cormac McCarthy? Joan Didion? Thomas Pynchon?
For Nobody Move is a slim joyride, popcorn accessible, a babes-and-guns exercise in pulp fiction written with a poet’s care and precision.
Having just bulleted through his new, supremely pleasurable novel Nobody Move, I hereby nominate Denis Johnson. It’s not really a left-field pick, not since he won the 2007 National Book Award for his Vietnam opus Tree of Smoke. Still, Johnson’s outsider reputation survived that accolade, perhaps because Tree of Smoke received at least one prominent, hyperventilating takedown, perhaps because Johnson skipped the awards ceremony, perhaps because his reason for skipping the awards ceremony—to report an Iraq story for Portfolio—resulted in a piece that seemed to mock the assigning publication. Johnson will never fit comfortably in the literary establishment. He’s too prickly, too much of a recluse, and he writes too much like a maniac—never more so than in his 1992 masterpiece Jesus’ Son. Those dark tales of Middle America drug-addicts and dropouts take about an hour and a half to read through and a lifetime to forget. Jesus’ Son is so extraterrestrial in its brilliance that it set a new standard for a generation of aspiring writers (myself included).
Which—sigh—probably accounts for why Johnson is so frequently called a “writer’s writer.” Can we, I wonder, swear off the use of that loathsome, belittling epithet? All it seems to mean is: really good, sells poorly—a relationship common enough in literary fiction as to feel axiomatic.
In any case, Denis Johnson’s latest novel, his ninth (previously serialized in Playboy—there! another reason to read Playboy) is really, really good, and odds are it’ll sell plenty. For Nobody Move is a slim joyride, popcorn accessible, a babes-and-guns exercise in pulp fiction written with a poet’s care and precision (Denis Johnson is also a poet). Some critics may set Nobody Move beside the big, magnificent Tree of Smoke, and call it minor Johnson—but I’d call it his No Country for Old Men, not so much lightweight as streamlined. It’s the most entertaining book I’ve read this year.
I won’t give away the twisty plot, but here’s the setup: We’re in California and Jimmy Luntz, a compulsive gambler and amateur barbershop chorus singer, owes some money to a nasty dude named Juarez. Juarez sends his nattily dressed enforcer Gambol upstate to collect, which doesn’t go according to plan. Pretty soon it’s Luntz running from Juarez, and the last guy who tried to run from Juarez? “Gambol and I sat down and made a meal of his balls,” Juarez tells Luntz. “Anaheim oysters. Very tasty.”
Luntz is violence-shy and a bit of a loser. A former boxer, “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 10-count.” So this would be a mismatch if not for Anita Desilvera, a tough, hot-blooded beauty with a vengeful streak who miraculously gives Luntz the time of day. (Perhaps it’s because he goes all-in from the moment he meets her: “I’d throw everything away for a woman like you.”) Together, they’re more than a match for the bad guys, plus Anita’s got a line on $2.3 million she embezzled, and subsequently lost, to her ex-husband.
Johnson is crowd-friendly enough to give Nobody Move a climactic shootout or two, and the strings of jabbing, tough-guy dialogue recall Raymond Chandler. But this is no cheap noir-ish pastiche. Johnson distinctiveness as a writer is everywhere in evidence: Anita watching her reflection in a quiet river; the description of a rainy street: “Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy”; a California morning that “seemed lit by a blowtorch.” The inevitable movie adaptation will be fun, but Johnson’s prose has a meticulousness you don’t want to miss. My only complaint—and it’s the kind you want: Nobody Move is over before you know it.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.