Miami Herald // Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

Well I’ve fallen a little behind in posting my book reviews.

NOBODY MOVE. Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 192 pages. $22.

Denis Johnson had no easy task in following up his sprawling, National Book Award-winning Vietnam epicTree of Smoke. But the same could have been said about his story collection Jesus’ Son, a bona fide American classic that has inspired more young fictioneers than any other book since On the Road.He has, to date, written 10 works of fiction, several poetry collections, and even a play.

Nobody Move appears to take its title from the reggae song Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt by Yellowman. That’s an unlikely soundtrack to a story about a barbershop harmony singer named Jimmy Luntz who has run up too many gambling debts and gets taken for a ride through south-central California by a thug named Gambol. Instead of accepting the beating he deserves, Luntz shoots Gambol in the leg and spends the rest of the book on the run. Along the way, he meets a beautiful woman named Anita, who has her own share of problems. She’s a hard drinker involved in a scheme to steal several million dollars. She and Luntz make a good team.

Gambol recovers from his gunshot with the help of Mary, the ex-wife of his boss, Juarez. Mary is an Army vet with a habit of stealing medical supplies. Her care for Gambol involves all of the therapeutic exercises you might expect from a story that originally appeared in Playboy magazine. In many ways, these are all classic Denis Johnson characters.

Many of Johnson’s books appear to inhabit the same universe, as if each title is another piece in an enormous jigsaw puzzle, the subject of which — maybe the effects of war on the home front? — is still taking shape. Longtime admirers of Johnson’s work, who tend to be somewhat obsessive, will spot a few themes that placeNobody Moves squarely in that context. It is set after 9/11, and the Gulf Wars exist in the story’s subtext. Gambol, who is of the mind to nuke ”that whole Muslim desert to glass,” becomes distraught when he learns that Juarez might be of Middle Eastern descent.

Little of the snappy dialogue can be quoted at length in a family newspaper. And given the spare, made-for-glossy-serialization tone of the book, Johnson’s poetic range doesn’t find its fullest expression, but there are the occasional passages of utterly perfect prose. “Luntz’s vision turned a brilliant brown, then a mellow purple, then a beautiful color he’d never seen before in which he had everything he needed and all the time in the world to decide what came next. He gripped the wrists of the hands that were choking him and removed the hands as easily as if he were taking off a sports jacket.”

Even if Nobody Moves lacks the obvious gravitas and emotional resonance of Johnson’s best books, its hardboiled, tough-as-railroad-spikes tone is likely to find an enormous audience. It reads like a Coen Brothers movie waiting to happen, a cross between Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men. There’s certainly enough going on here to feed the jones of Johnson’s legion devotees.