Denis Johnson's Nobody Move

Thu May 14, 2009

I’ve looked around a bit at some of the reviews that’ve been posted of this to date, and not many of them, as I remember, invoked Already Dead as the most likely ancestor of this material, though that book is far denser and perhaps as strange as this. The style of Jesus’ Son, which I’ve always guessed–without having any real evidence—to be the most influential of American books published in the 90s in the workshop is on display here as well, though in a looser form. None of the characters have the capacity for heightened perception that the protagonist of that book does, so it’s not necessary a flaw in art.

“Blockhead” concerns and even inevitable-seeming comparisons with Sanctuary have been made in the press I’ve read, which is even more predictable if you know that Nobody Move was serialized in Playboy for what I suppose was a handsome fee. The book is yet more subtle than it might appear to be. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Feather River, site of a disappointing Gold Rush, features so prominently, for example. Luntz’s gambling addiction both causes him considerable trouble and elevates him at the end. Anita is referred to by Luntz himself and others as being a “different class of person” several times. Were it not for his decisions to engage in uncharacteristic violence—dangerous gambits all—he would have met an anonymous fate.

So we have a stupid, impulsive man, whose impulsivity overcomes his innate cowardice and leads him to what I read, though there’s some ambiguity of circumstance at the end, to a type of redemption. It’s not a deviation from noir-type at all, and Johnson has a Coen Brothers-like delight in the poetics of everyday stupidity which is evident throughout. The Judge, in his Lebowski-Chandler wheelchair, has his colostomy bag splattered over his face and reacts with a pragmatic stoicism, asking the obviously insane criminals at one point if this is a “terminal situation” they were in.

Anita Desilvera’s ethnicity—she’s Native American—also doesn’t escape what seems to be a more serious comment. Her actions are not the noir femme fatale stereotype of enlightened or cynical self-interest; she seems motivated by a wounded pride that seems to extend into historical consciousness. If treated ponderously, this would quickly become bathetic; but Johnson is uniquely skilled as a writer in creating moments of unsought clarity in characters who are unable to articulate their experience. Witness Anita’s talk of the “devils,” for instance.