four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-Nobody MovePoet, playwright, and novelist Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for his expansive, bold epic of the Vietnam War, Tree of Smoke ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2007). He originally wrote this noir crime novel as a four-part serial for Playboy.

The Story: Barbershop quartet member Jimmy Luntz has just lost a choral competition when Ernest Gambol, a sadistic hired gun with a taste for human flesh, pays him a visit. A recent losing streak means that Jimmy doesn’t have the money to pay his gambling debts to Gambol’s loan shark boss, and he manages to escape only by shooting Gambol in the leg and speeding off in the hit man’s Cadillac. As he careens across California’s Central Valley, Jimmy crosses paths with the beautiful Anita Desilvera, framed for robbery by her crooked county prosecutor husband. Together, Jimmy and Anita race against time to find the stolen money while staying one step ahead of Gambol.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 196 pages. $23. ISBN: 0374222908

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Nobody Move does exactly what noir should do—propel the reader downhill, with its cast of losers, louts, and toughs as they cheat, shoot, and exploit one another into fast-talking oblivion. Yet there’s a playful tilt, a humane rendering of its dark characters, and a relentless buzz in the sentences that recalls Jesus’ Son, Johnson’s tight little classic of fractured junkie transcendence." Jess Walter

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"One senses that Johnson took great pleasure in writing on a deadline, keeping the story tight to the bone, honing his sentences down to the same kind of utilitarian purity he demonstrated in Tree of Smoke. … If Tree of Smoke—intricately plotted, embracing the entire Vietnam era and bringing it up alongside the war in Iraq—was a huge piece of work, a ‘Guernica’ of sorts, then Nobody Move is a Warhol soup can, a flinty, bright piece of pop art meant to be instantly understood and enjoyed." David Means

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"In tone, Nobody Move sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, moved to the dull towns of Central California. … Organized in expert fashion by Johnson, the tension rises by the page. At 196 of them, there’s no room for digression." Bob Hoover

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Eschewing the milder, more reflective emotional range of most literary fiction, this expertly titrated entertainment delivers a steadily pleasurable dose of voyeuristic dread. Johnson writes pulp fiction with alarming ease and economy, crisply working the old noir character types through a relentless series of reversals, milking them at the most dire moments for unlikely, enigmatic utterances that are quickly forgotten as we turn the page and hurry on." Jacob Molyneux

South FL Sun-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s got all the [Elmore] Leonard requisites: a lowlife but somehow noble hero; a beautiful (and in this case deranged) broad; bad people in both the legit and criminal worlds who want to do them harm—all conjured with deadpan humor in lean and supple prose. … While Johnson weaves all this together with an expert touch, he gives the familiar tropes a deft, off-kilter spin." Chauncey Mabe

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The brevity of this novel limits Johnson’s scope, but he still has room for zingers (like a character who gets ‘thirty percent drunk’); observations of human nature (Anita: ‘Do you always talk about people like they’re invisible?’ Jimmy: ‘Usually just women’); and an extended gunfire sequence that plays like an outtake from Tree of Smoke. Nobody Move does not rank as a major work, but enjoy it for what it is: an idiosyncratic journey through familiar terrain." Sarah Weinman

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a small-caliber crime thriller, a petty perpetration of literary kleptomania that clips along at such a beach-blankety pace you hardly notice that the characters are clichés, the plot recycled pulp and the destination obscure. … Johnson dazzles us with footwork, with word choices and poetic constructions, but he can’t disguise that Jimmy, Anita, Gambol and the rest are pure cartoons." John Anderson

Critical Summary

Critics were puzzled by Johnson’s choice to follow up the award-winning Tree of Smoke with a lightweight genre piece like Nobody Move. While most viewed the novel as a laudable exercise in style and technique, a few considered it a literary side step—a minor work by an acclaimed writer. Taking a few pages from such crime story greats as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Johnson has produced quintessential noir—with snappy dialogue, violence, sex, and a wry sense of humor. Though Newsday complained of one-dimensional characters and flimsy plotlines, other reviewers regarded these as hallmarks of the genre, proclaiming Johnson "marvelously fluent in noir" (Boston Globe). Lacking the heft and depth of Johnson’s previous work, Nobody Move is the perfect choice for easy, entertaining summer reading.