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Hard-Edged Noir Jewel From Denis Johnson

Apr 27, 2009

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Real gangsters aren't particularly smart or wise. If they were, they'd be hedge fund managers with secret Swiss bank accounts. Mostly, they're dim and desperate and, if clever at all, gifted with the ability to know when a situation might get worse. They don't do long-term planning.

National Book Award winner Denis Johnson's new novel, Nobody Move, gives us authentic goons: eternal fall guys, not cool criminals. They're people who turn to crime because they can't get anything right. With a Mamet-like ear, Johnson makes their deadly, idiotic squabbles sing.

Jimmy Luntz is behind with his gambling debts. When a tough guy shows up and matter-of-factly proposes to begin breaking body parts, Jimmy shoots him in the leg and makes a run for it. Before the day is out, Jimmy ends up in bed with the beautiful but damaged Anita Desilvera, an embezzler of millions who now has nothing to her name. "In a single morning ... she'd made herself a vagrant, a felon and a future divorcee." Instead of leaving town, the two decide to go after the big money Anita left behind — with only their paltry wits and horrendous luck to aid them.

This noirish little shoot'em-up is faster-paced than Johnson's much-celebrated novel Tree of Smoke (2007) or story collection Jesus' Son (1992). It's a rogue sonnet. Yet there's something about this tale of losers on the lam that sticks in the mind. As the book piles on the tough talk and lowlife locales, its tragicomic nobodies begin to look a lot like regular folk, but without the middle-class safety net and with a wee bit more imagination than might be good for them.

In Nobody Move, Jimmy and Anita almost seem sensible for fighting to keep what little they have. As she gushes about choosing him for her lover (and partner in crime), he quips, "I just think it's bullshit for you to act like you had a choice."

One could be melodramatic and say that at least they have each other, but that fact is unlikely to save them. Johnson's triumph is that he makes poetry out of these two emphatically unpoetic lives.

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Nobody Move
By Denis Johnson
Hardcover, 195 pages
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
List price: $23

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