Your Money or Your Life

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Denis Johnson strips bare and shucks the pump in his fast-moving literary noir, Nobody Move.

Over the past several years we have witnessed the revival of a uniquely American form: the literary crime novel. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men reminded readers of many things, chief among them that when you introduce the elements of outsized profits and men doing whatever it takes to procure them, stories take on an entirely different tension and even greater urgency. The heightened stakes in this kind of book are always the stakes of life and death.

And, of course, money.

Critics are already comparing Denis Johnson’s latest addition to the genre, Nobody Move (serialized last fall in Playboy), to literary forbears Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—and these aren’t bad comparisons by any means. They just aren’t necessarily the best ones. The movement of Johnson’s sleek, sexy, often hilarious noir novel owes much more to McCarthy’s, as do several of Johnson’s plot details. No Country for Old Men features an illicit $2.4 million payday; in Nobody Move, $2.3 million is the figure. In No Country, evil guy (Anton Chigurh) pursues bad guy (Llewellyn Moss), gets shot in the leg and nurses himself back to health; Nobody Move’s bag guy (Jimmy Luntz) leg-shoots his novel’s evil guy (Ernest Gambol), who must be nursed by a woman who soon becomes a love interest. (Evil guys don’t generally get to have love interests; it’s nice to see that Johnson’s does.)

But Nobody Move is far from being derivative—rather, I see this as an example of the best kind of literary cross-pollination. I also see it as an interesting dynamic in which our best living writer influences, perhaps in ways entirely unconscious, our soon-to-be best living writer.

At the center of Johnson’s novel is the terminally sympathetic Luntz, member of a barbershop choir, a schlemiel, human yo-yo, and gambling addict. Early on, Luntz is intercepted by Gambol, henchman of a crime boss named Juarez, to whom Luntz owes his gambling debts. After Luntz’s initial escape from Gambol, he meets Anita Desilvera, a femme fatale who’s been framed by her husband for embezzlement. Luntz and Desilvera end up in bed quickly (but believably) and then together they flee Gambol and Juarez, who now seek a gruesome revenge on anti-hero Luntz: they plan to eat his testicles, a retributive delicacy they’ve indulged in before with other deadbeats. The couple’s intentions eventually escalate from simple escape to stealing the $2.3 million Desilvera’s husband embezzled and framed her for.

Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson

That’s all I’m willing to give away concerning the plot, whose tense twists and turns are unexpected and entirely satisfying—but plot, in this novel, is secondary to style, dialogue, and the classic Denis Johnson sentence: “After the film it was raining, a light, steady rain. Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy.” The truly amazing thing about Johnson’s prose is that it doesn’t let up, and he continues to stack great sentence upon great sentence, each image clear and surprising, each phrase delivered with a poet’s care. This is also true of 2007’s Tree of Smoke, for which he was awarded the National Book Award, and while the prose there is maximalist and recursive, the prose in Nobody Move is minimalist and built for speed. And yet, it’s no less impressive. Readers looking for quick and entertaining will find it here; those who want to ponder and dig beneath the surface are certain to unearth treasures to amaze.

But what finally strikes me about Nobody Move is the way Johnson takes the form revived by McCarthy and does something quite different in terms of atmosphere and tone, in terms of sex. No Country is bleakly apocalyptic, describing a desexualized world in which societal structures inevitably break down and fail. Nobody Move depicts an apocalypse that is smaller, personal, and thoroughly erotic, a vortex involving a handful of excessively libidinous characters. And, as is always the case with literary crime, we find ourselves, much like Luntz, placing bets on who will make it out alive, and on what they’ll make it out with.

Aaron Gwyn is the author of the story collection Dog on the Cross, finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and the recently released novel The World Beneath. More from this author →