by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $23)
My first reaction upon opening Denis Johnson’s new short novel was to wonder why a well-regarded literary novelist would want to write an Elmore Leonard book.
Johnson, who won the National Book Award for the Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke,” has not, of course, actually written an Elmore Leonard novel. “Nobody Move” is his own riff on that archetypal American pop genre, the hard-boiled noir thriller.
But it is a tribute to Leonard, who does this kind of thing as well as it’s ever been done, that “Nobody Move” seems so much like one of his novels.
It’s got all the Leonard requisites: a lowlife but somehow noble hero; a beautiful (and in this case deranged) broad; bad people in both the legit and criminal worlds who want to do them harm – all conjured with deadpan humor in lean and supple prose.
“Nobody Move” first saw light serially in Playboy. Perhaps that accounts for the reckless energy of the version now published between hard covers.
Jimmy Luntz, the ostensible hero, is a winning and resourceful character, a hard-luck professional gambler who also sings in a barbershop quartet and a men’s chorus. After a competition in Bakersfield (his group comes in 18th out of a final field of 20), he’s ready to return to Los Angeles when Ernest Gambol picks him up in a Cadillac.
Gambol’s here to collect money Luntz owes his boss, Juarez. Soon Luntz is on the run in the Caddy, leaving Gambol bleeding from a gunshot wound by the side of the road. In the next town, he takes up with Anita Desilvera, who knows how to get her hands on $2.3 million in swindled public funds.
Meanwhile Gambol, cared for by an Army vet nurse, is soon back on his feet and searching relentlessly for Luntz.
While Johnson weaves all this together with an expert touch, he gives the familiar tropes a deft, off-kilter spin. Anita, for example, is crazed with self-hatred and a lust for revenge. And Gambol, though a very bad man, grows increasingly sympathetic as he falls for the nurse.
Johnson tosses in little narrative fillips that add texture and depth without drawing attention to themselves or slowing the story. For example, Gambol mentions that his brother has just died, in the middle of ominously threatening Luntz, who is nonplused by the information:
“Luntz knew nothing about any brother. How do you reason with someone who throws something like that in the conversation?”
At another key point, with Gambol and Juarez close on their trail, Luntz says to Anita: “There’s no way to go but the way we’re going. I know how it ends, but there’s no other way.”
In fact, Johnson takes the story to an ending no one guided by noir convention could expect. At first it feels like a cheat, but after only a moment’s reflection, I saw how cleverly it turns the story inside out, enlarging my understanding of the principal characters – and, dare I say, the human condition.
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