Arts Brief

BY DAN WATSON | MAY 05, 2009 7:26 AM

Nobody move, but everybody read

Literary icon Denis Johnson pays homage to the American crime novel in his latest book, Nobody Move. The book has a plot that may surprise his fans, but his devotion to character and sharp dialogue is intact. He is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he made a name for himself with the 1993 short-story collection Jesus’ Son.

Nobody Move is Johnson’s first published novel since his 2007 Vietnam epic and National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke. In 2008, Nobody Move was first published in four part installments in Playboy magazine. The thriller focuses on low-life gambler and barber shop quartet singer Jimmy Luntz. Like all classic noirs, Nobody Move has good guys and bad guys, although nearly all of its characters are gun-carrying murderers, or aspiring murderers. The plot is simple: Luntz owes money, Luntz can’t pay up, Luntz has to do something or he’s dead, bad guys get pissed and come for Luntz. While a plot is obviously necessary, the story line doesn’t have to be entirely engaging because Johnson is a master at portraying lowlives and unstable rejects, while creating dialogue that never stalls. Nobody Move is set in California and the West is Johnson’s true literary home; his work captures a dirty, but somehow marvelous, feel for the region.

Nobody Move is set up like so many of its genre’s classics. Provocative females are not who they seem, a shadowing crime boss lurks around the corner, all while slick guns and fast cars propel the characters into action. But Johnson adds his own humor and modern touches. Luntz takes shelter in a crummy apartment owned by gay former thugs, a “hefty blonde” military nurse takes care of the wounded in a rather untraditional way, and as always, Johnson fills his pages with chain-smoking alcoholics who are quick with jokes.

Johnson could have ended Nobody Move on a slew of predictable endings, but he chooses to go a more surprising and postmodern way. Although not a twist, the book’s resolution will have readers pondering its meaning and begging for more in the odd way that only Johnson can do.

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