Early on in Denis Johnson’s “Nobody Move,” hero Jimmy Luntz hears the tiny snatch of a reggae song: “Nobody move/Nobody gets hurt.” Unfortunately the desperate and outcast denizens of this novella move around plenty.
Denis Johnson, National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prized finalist for the august and delicious “Tree of Smoke,” turns his acknowledged talents to the crime caper here. Well, it’s not a crime caper so much as an adventure story about a gambler who hooks up with a beautiful woman, desperate herself, and tries without much success to stay ahead of the criminals who want to kill him.
The chief delight here is the dialog. It’s frank, laconic, and honest – there isn’t a wasted syllable anywhere. Picking out one conversation that one hopes is indicative of a whole story’s is quite risky, but I’m going to risk it anyway. Jimmy tells his temporary-but-beautiful partner Anita that a new outfit she’s trying on in J.C. Penney’s looks fine on her:
“It fits.”“You’re sweet,” she said, and she sort of meant it. But not as a compliment. “You’re homeless, right?” [she asked.]“I have a home. I’m just not going back there, is all.”“So right there in that shopping bag is everything you own?”“Everything I need.”“And your white canvas bag – what’s in that one?”“Everything else I need.”“I know what’s in it. A sawed-off shotgun.”He seemed completely unsurprised. “It’s not a sawed-off, it’s a pistol-grip. And it isn’t mine.”“I peeked in the bag while you were in the shower.”“You zipped it up real nice,” he said. “Good for you.”
Events take place in the blond blankness of minor Northern California valley towns, and feature its open fields and forested riversides: folks creep around on the lam and plot escape, revenge, or betrayal. Folks get caught, turn the tables, get shot, and angle for the big payday. Through it all, gambler Jimmy Luntz keeps trying to force his luck, and succeeds for a time. Go down gambling, his actions speak loud and clear, and you may not have to go at all.
I’m cheered and smiling at this mantissa of a story. Even with my challenging schedule, I read it in two sittings, nearly unheard-of for me. Yes, it’s slim, but it’s one of those things you don’t want to stop doing until it’s done, and then you just want to start all over again, like a looping out-of-control water slide. It’s wonderful, it shows Johnson’s force and skill to terrific effect, and well worth your while.