Serial killer: Denis Johnson’s 'Nobody Move'
Editor's note: On Friday, Playboy published the first section of Denis Johnson’s “Nobody Move,” a serialized work of fiction that will come out in four parts. Jacket Copy will review “Nobody Move,” installment by installment; below, our take on Part 1.
My wife is appalled at Denis Johnson. “Why Playboy?” she wants to know. She’s referring, of course, to the venue for Johnson’s latest project, “Nobody Move,” a 40,000-word “novel” that the magazine is publishing as a serial in four installments; the first, in the July issue, has just come out.
As for me, I’m more interested in the way “Nobody Move” might help further eclipse the line between mass culture and literature, between the throwaway nature of periodicals and the lasting weight of art. Although serials are not as uncommon as they once were — see Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” and Michael Chabon’s “Gentlemen of the Road” — they require novelists who can think like journalists, who can write on deadline, who aren’t afraid to make a mess.
This is cool, exhilarating even, especially in a world in which literary culture is often far too insular, like a form of trivial pursuit. Johnson is one of those rare writers who wants to walk both sides of the line here, to go after a mass readership with work that challenges at every turn. That’s one of the things that attracts me to “Nobody Move,” the idea of Johnson’s bleakly existential vision woven in amid the naked women and advice columns on how to live the good life, as if he were the voice of the collective unconscious — or, more accurately, of the collective id.
Not only that, but “Nobody Move” comes billed as a noir, that darkest of American genres, the literary equivalent of the blues.
It’s a great idea, for while Johnson is not a noirist, his fiction has long been influenced by hard-boiled tropes. Just look at “Angels,” with its drifter protagonist; or “Already Dead,” with its trippy metaphysical violence; or the magnificent despair of “Jesus’ Son.” All of these works have noirish elements: drugs, guns, desperation, the idea that the only choices we have are bad ones, that existence is a set-up, that we cannot win.
“Nobody Move” operates in this tradition, although on the basis of the first installment, it’s a much more scaled-down piece of work. The story of Jimmy Luntz — gambler, loser, occasional barbershop chorus singer — it begins outside Bakersfield and moves north. Luntz owes money on some gambling debts, but when he’s picked up by an enforcer named Gambol in “a copper-colored Cadillac Brougham,” things get out of control. Jimmy shoots Gambol and steals his wallet, then goes on the lam. It’s a solid set-up, if not particularly groundbreaking — but then, that’s the idea, isn’t it: to play with the conventions of the form?
It’s hard to say a lot about “Nobody Move” based on the first installment; I don’t know enough about it yet. But here are a few first impressions: The story moves, even though I don’t always believe it; if there’s a problem, it’s with the dialogue, which at times seems stilted; and Johnson remains, as he has always been, exquisitely skilled at evoking the moments between moments, those brief caesuras when the veil slips and we see through to the cold, irrational inevitability of being alive.
Early in the story, while Luntz is trying to reason with Gambol, the enforcer tells him, out of nowhere, that his brother has just died. “Luntz knew nothing about any brother,” Johnson writes. “How do you reason with someone who throws something like that into the conversation?” Later, after the shooting, Gambol lies in a culvert, trying to keep breathing, staring at “the purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh” and using his belt as a tourniquet. “He cinched the belt as tightly as it would go, but his hands were asleep and the wound seemed to well up and spill over, suck back, well up, spill over in a small but relentless way.”
Small but relentless: This could be a metaphor for how complications arise from nothing, how in “a single morning with some documents and a little ink,” a character might become “a vagrant, a felon and a future divorcée.” It also feels like a marker for the entire project, which seems to want to wear its intentions lightly, as if Johnson weren’t taking it all so seriously, as if he were riffing, having fun.
That’s OK; not every story needs to make a defining statement, and after spending 20 years, off and on, wrestling with his last novel, “Tree of Smoke,” who can blame Johnson for easing up? That — at this point — is what “Nobody Move” looks like: a literary palate cleanser, for Johnson and his readers alike.
To be continued …
David L. Ulin
(Author photo: Cindy Johnson/Farrar Strauss & Giroux)