Noir goes uptown
A literary master takes the crime novel for a spin and shows us what it can do
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 196 pp., $23
Jimmy Luntz has got to be the first protagonist in noir history to begin his blood-soaked descent singing in a men's choir.
Jimmy's pipes are only the first clue that "Nobody Move" isn't your run-of-the-mill, bullet-hole-jacketed crime novel. Instead, this fast, funny diversion is protean writer Denis Johnson's sly follow-up to his Vietnam epic "Tree of Smoke," winner of the 2007 National Book Award.
It can be dicey for a literary lion to wander into the crime genre. Adhere to form and the author risks condescending or producing a faint copy of something disposable; subvert those conventions and the result is often flat, a thriller with no thrills. As if that balance weren't tricky enough, Johnson chose to write "Nobody Move" as a four-part serial for Playboy magazine.
Well, as his Iraq War-distracted characters might say: Mission accomplished.
"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.
Johnson's smartest move is to avoid the overplotting that infects many contemporary crime novels. Yes, every permutation has seemingly been done, every villain imagined, every plot turn played. So rather than invent some unlikely premise or gin the game with eye-rolling twists, Johnson simply gives us one guy (Luntz) who owes another guy (Juarez) money, so that a third guy (Gambol) is sent to dispatch the first guy.
Put them in bleak James Cain-land, central California, mix in the requisite beautiful, dangerous woman (Anita), whip up a sociopath or three, season liberally with guns, greed, and cigarettes (there's so much smoking, the book ought to come with an AMA warning), and you've got all the elements you need for quick, dirty fun.
Johnson embeds his twists in the characters. After performing with the "Alhambra California Beachcomber Chordsman" Jimmy ranges around in a white tux with a checkered vest; his tough biker friend turns out to be gay; the female "vet" called to treat a gunshot victim is not a veterinarian but a veteran who treated combat wounds in Iraq; and the most poignant relationship is not between antihero and dangerous dame, but between Iraq vet and her wounded hit man, Gambol.
Johnson is marvelously fluent in noir. His short, quick lines hum with caustic humor and an awareness of what he's writing: a rain storm produces "ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy," a motel is "made of fake logs and cheap in its soul."
And what of that echo of the Iraq War? Jimmy imagines his choir comrades as soldiers going into battle; Gambol suggests nuking "that whole Muslim desert to glass"; the characters debate whether Juarez is Arab; and behind its suburban sprawl, Bakersfield, Calif., throbs with a nation's oil lust: "In the most unlikely places, in the middle of a shopping mall or next to one of those fancy new churches, all glass and swooping curves, you'd see oil rigs with their heads going up and down."
Thankfully, any deeper allegorical or existential meaning (that war is like noir, amoral and ultimately empty?) is quickly drowned out by the crackle of gunfire, and more to the point, the crackle of boozy dialogue, which Johnson plays like tennis rallies, back-and-forth, back-and-forth until someone scores a point:
"You're drunk." "Not yet, but I like the way you think." . . . "Do you hate yourself?" "Not enough." . . . "You're nice . . . when you're sober." "Have you ever seen me sober?"
In these matter-of-fact, drunken confessions of barrenness the hopeful reader might see a bit of "Jesus' Son." In that brief masterpiece, Johnson used his lean sentences and sweet addict tough talk to create gorgeous hallucinatory nonsequiturs, to paint an amiable lost decrepitude that felt bigger than the book, felt generational, felt capital-A American.
"Nobody Move" has smaller ambitions, but ambitions are ambitions, and Johnson mostly has a bead on his.
Early on, Luntz hears a reggae song with the lyrics, "nobody move/nobody get hurt," then catches a movie in which a couple meets and are clearly headed for a happy ending. But this is noir, where everyone is always moving - either running or chasing. People get shot, pages turn, and the distance between runners and chasers shrivels until the only remaining question is whether Johnson will subvert that final crime novel convention - the tidy conclusion. Even the characters want in on that action, the vet at one point asking her gunshot hit man: "What about a happy ending?"
Gambol clearly knows something when he snaps back: "Not dying when someone shoots you is about as happy as it gets."
Jess Walter is the author of the National Book Award finalist "The Zero" and "Citizen Vince," winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award. His new novel, "The Financial Lives of the Poets," will be published in September.