Friday, June 5, 2009

Nobody Move

Sleek, lean, and mean as a bullet, Denis Johnson's recent novel Nobody Move has got so much in it to love at times it's hard to bear. Alternately, too, it's a book that is disparagingly dark and wretchedly comic, and has got so much in it that's cringeworthy it's hard not to consult either a barf bag or your local opium den as you read it. (One scene involving a colostomy bag, a disfigured criminal called 'Tall Man', and a beatiful woman with a gun is particularly spectacular). So what I'm saying is this: If there's a book in recent memory quick enough and cool enough to sprite onto your tongue before you've had the time to hate it, this might be it. Call me a Johnson-ite, call me anything, this man can write.

This new novel marks a significant departure from Denis Johnson's previous works and most famously, his 2008 National Book Award Winner, Tree of Smoke. Originally serialized in Playboy, Nobody Move is Johnson's entry into the black and white world of noir champions like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett and miles from the psychedelia of his war fiction (Tree of Smoke) or short stories (the cooly brilliant, Jesus' Son, which as far as I'm concerned should be required reading for all high school students -- no, I take that back, all human beings). Like other recent novels in the noir genre -- and in particular Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union or Graham Swift's The Light of Day -- Nobody Move manages to both pervert and reify the established mechanics of noir in really interesting ways. Most obviously, it infuses Johnson's great sardonic humor with the hardboiled sleekness we love in noir. Playfully toying with its archetypes, Johnson makes his hero not a gin-swilling hit man out to get the girl but a bumbling gambling addict who cannot drink due to a touchy case of indigestion, gleefully sings in an 18 man barbershop doowop group, and though he isn't wearing one, 'undoubtedly owns a number of Hawaiian shirts.' (Even if it's just for fun, contrast this character to someone like Robert Mitchum's in the noir classic, Out of the Past: Amidst a cast list that includes a boozy Native American princess, a corrupt and paralyzed judge, the mysteriously disfigured Tall Man, some gay bikers, and the early-1990s-Cadillac-driving Bad Guys, Gambol and Juarez (who's Arab and not Mexican, the book notes), the novel's hero Jimmy Luntz proves to show as great a time as one can have as he explores the consequences of his actions in our perverse world. And for those inclined to look beneath the surface and towards the pebbles below, on another level, Johnson's own exploration of the boundaries and expectations of the noir genre proves to be great fun as well. Clocking in at a slim 208 pages, this book really flies. If you find that it isn't worth your time, call me a doowop singing, Hawaiian shirt wearing, scratch-ticket-addicted fool. (Always remember though: in noir it's not the man that counts, it's the gun that's in his hand.)

Read it.


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