There are endless stories of money, guns, and the people in pursuit of both. The American crime novel is like a torch song or a jazz standard—a formula with certain agreed-upon rules, the kind of thing writers like to “try out,” sparring with genre limitations as an exercise in forced precision. Coming after his 614-page, National Book Award-winning opus Tree Of Smoke, Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a short, sharp noir that flashes the occasional compact uppercut he displayed in his perennially revered, drug-addled collection Jesus’ Son. Originally serialized in 10,000-word installments over four issues of Playboy last spring, Nobody Move sees Johnson at his playful best, smirking through his own version of convention, trying to surprise himself and his readers with the results.
Nobody Move is primarily concerned with the interaction of half a dozen noir archetypes, all shadowing each other, threatening each other, hurting each other, and fucking each other (literally and figuratively) for the elusive get-rich-quick maneuver that will once and for all deliver them from the murky misery of their solitary lives. There’s Jimmy Luntz, careening around Bakersfield, California in a stolen Cadillac, lifted from the imposing (and winkingly named) Ernest Gambol, who’s been dispatched to collect an old debt. Luntz leaves Gambol bleeding on the roadside and meets up with gorgeous alcoholic Anita Desilvera, who is enmeshed in her own web of finance, murder, and betrayal. All four end up orbiting a roadside diner straight out of the film version of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” with slapping screen doors in the dark causing as much alarm as the “klick-ack” cocking of a shotgun. Money, blood, twilight, cigarette smoke, and gunfire—they amount to an entire trunkful of pulp-fiction props upended and rearranged by Johnson, who writes in hot pursuit, as if he himself were on the trail of a bag of cash, wondering aloud how it all ends.
Early on in the novel, Luntz tunes his car radio and settles on a Jamaican song where “somebody sang, ‘Nobody move, nobody get hurt…’” In Johnson’s novel, everyone moves, everyone gets hurt, yet no one seems to get anywhere. The Cadillacs and pickups spin their wheels and everyone gets tugged back to the center by need—for money, violence, or sex. Johnson leaves his fingerprints over everything and escapes, like a wisp of smoke from a gun barrel—violent and vaguely beautiful.