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Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move': Where do we go from here?

September 2, 2008 |  5:55 am

Gun0801

Since June, Jacket Copy has been hosting an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move," which is being published in four parts in Playboy. Part 3 has just hit the stands, and once again, we pick up where we left off.

Let's start with some hyperbole: The third installment of "Nobody Move" is the best yet. The action moves like a steamroller, and the dialogue, which I liked in Part 2 but Tod Goldberg thought was overdone, has been pared back to a minimum, a way to highlight the tension rather than drive the plot. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but Johnson kicks the narrative into high gear, moving us out of set-up mode and into the meat. In fact, reading the third installment, I feel for the first time that we're in the heart of the heart of the story, that things are driving finally, that we're on our way to some kind of inexorable end.

What Johnson does so well here is to reintegrate his two parallel plot lines -- the one involving Jimmy Luntz and the other about Harry Gambol -- while starting to suggest how the whole project will resolve. Jimmy and Harry have been apart, you may remember, since the very beginning of "Nobody Move," when Jimmy shot Harry and left him by the side of the road. Harry's been recuperating ever since, but now he's back, strong and silent -- a great white shark of a man, ignoring Mary, the nurse who has become his lover, when she warns him to be careful with his injured leg, that his sutures haven't completely healed.

With Gambol out in the world, Jimmy's life immediately becomes more dangerous -- desperate even. "Luntz pushed it hard," Johnson writes toward the end of the installment, "making sure he heard the tires on every curve. If a cop lit him up, he'd steer it off a cliff."

Now we're in the real stuff, where noir becomes existential, where all the choices are bad ones and "[t]here's no way to go," as Jimmy tells Anita, "but the way we're going. I know how it ends, but there's no other way."

Where it's going after the jump.

And yet, for all that this makes Part 3 of "Nobody Move" so satisfying, it raises a tricky question about the project as a whole. Like Jimmy, after all, we can also see where this is going, see how all the various plot lines will converge as the novel narrows to its inexorable end.

That, too, is one of the pleasures of noir, the way it is a fiction not so much of choices but of the lack of choices, in which the challenge for a writer is to gradually close down possibilities and channel everything into a single narrative chute. To be sure, that's precisely what Johnson is up to, but at the end of this installment, I'm left with the feeling that it may not be enough.

I don't know how else to explain it, except that I'm not sure the stakes here merit what looks to be the payoff, not sure Jimmy's transgression is a potent enough sin to trigger all this chaos, to rain down devastation on his world. But then, maybe that's what the fourth installment will tell us -- why it all matters so intensely, as the elusive dance of Jimmy Luntz and Harry Gambol plays out to the end.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo by Matt Borowick via Flickr

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