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"Nobody Move" by Denis Johnson

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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.

"Chalice of Blood" by Peter Tremayne

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Elsewhere I have extolled the Sister Fidelma mystery series, which Peter Tremayne has set in ancient Ireland. It provides an educated glimpse into an exotic time and place, Ireland in the AD 600s, a place with a more advanced and enlightened (to 21st century sensibilities) social and legal system than any country near it, and maybe beyond. Mr. Tremayne has invented a nun in her mid-to-late 20s, who serves as a dálaigh (pronounced ‘dawley’), or court prosecutor, and who roves the Five Kingdoms of Ireland tackling conundrums and bringing miscreants to justice. 

One bewitching surprise is that Fidelma is married and has a young son. She has taken Eadulf, a Saxon monk (with his endearing ‘everyman’ quality) as her husband, as the Church has not fully adopted the Roman edict of celibacy. Far from it. And herein lies one of the chief charms of the series: we get a historian’s (whose real name is Peter Berresford Ellis) best attempt to find the tenor of a very fluid time in Church history, and he captures the tension created when encroaching Roman orthodoxy inexorably supplants ancient native traditions. This is a theme in all the entries of this series, but Mr. Tremayne turns it up a couple of notches for “Chalice of Blood,” and this qualitative change is why I’m giving this book space of its own.

The murder victim in this story, a scholarly monk, has returned from his researches in the Holy Land in a state of crisis. He has reviewed documents that shake his faith, and knows that in following his conscience he will risk censure and excommunication as a heretic, and thus bring disgrace to his abbey. So here the author lets the historian in him come to the fore – praise be! – and we get chapter and verse on major treatises in the debate. A second-century Greek philosopher, Celsus, challenged what he thought was the unfounded Christian view of humans as resembling God. After all, why shouldn’t God, if it had taken the absurd step of manifesting itself on Earth, have assumed the form on an insect, bird, or horse? He also takes to task the Hebrew tradition that they are the chosen people, finding it egocentric and preposterous. His texts do not survive, but were taken seriously enough that the pre-Nicene Church Father, Origen, felt compelled to take him on and aver the Church position, point-by-point.  It is from Origen that we know Celsus. Mr. Tremayne has turned a lovely trick and served his readers superbly with this plot device.

So here we have, in addition to well-plotted and -paced mystery, a tantalizing hint of the sweeping nature of the early Christian debate, and some of the work that comprised it. “Chalice of Blood” delivers, very gratifyingly, on every promise.