Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Don't Gamble. Just Move Along. [A Book Review]

Nobody Move
A novel by Denis Johnson
Published April 2009
(First appeared in serialized parts in Playboy magazine throughout 2008)

The newest novel by Denis Johnson, literary fiction writer behind critically acclaimed works like Jesus' Son and Tree of Smoke, is an excersize in genre fiction that first saw publication in men's delight magazine, Playboy. Unfortunately, those coming to Johnson's work for the first time (like myself), are bound to be disappointed as they find themselves confronted with a run of the mill work of genre fiction arguably of the same forgettable quality that the cover of Johnson's work pays homage to.

Nobody Move follows Jimmy Luntz, a proud and passionate gambler with no luck to speak of, as he runs from a non-descript crime organization/loan shark to whom he owes money. The chase is lead by Gambol, a thick-headed thug with a grudge and pension for saying "fuck you" as much as Jimmy says "Wow." Along the way their paths cross with that of Anita Desilvera, the soon to be ex-wife of a county prosecutor with a vendetta of her own and a means to score 2.3 million dollars. From there, things get more complicated and spur on sex, violence, and murder.

Most disappointing is how little Johnson brought to this novel that was outside of the the typical conventions of the genre. When picking up a novel by someone like Johnson-- even if it is a work genre fiction-- there is an expectation of high quality in writing. No one expects a National Book Award winner, and Pulitzer finalist to produce the same level of material as a 5.99 straight-to-massmarket-paperback writer. What's expected is a work of genre fiction with the same level of suspense and intrigue as a genre fiction writer, but infused with literary elements, devises and themes. At the very least, Johnson could have made a statement on the nature of gambling, or the gambler, or the self-destructiveness of personal vendettas but these truths are left unexplored or only lightly touched on. In short, the work is unbecoming on a literary writer of Johnson's supposed caliber.

Without the added benefits of genre fiction by a literary writer, the novel has to be examined on it's own merits as only genre fiction (of which I'm no expert). The plot in itself is nothing original, and is in fact rather plain-looking by the standard of crime fiction. The source of the money involved is inconsequential and has little baring on the story, there is virtually no police involvement in the story despite the murders and gun-shots, the double crosses are minimal and never pull the carpet out from underneath-- they in fact have little significance on the story as a whole, and the novel can really only be called suspenseful in it's last two section at the very best. There is nothing exceptional about this work as genre fiction, and it was an active struggle to finish the last section of the novel-- the most action-packed and heated. The characters, while interesting in their own way, never really resonate and to some extent resemble the caricatures that undoubtedly proliferate the genre. Luntz and Anita hold up best under examination, particularly Luntz, but it is in large because of the concepts connected to them that never get explored.

Oddly enough, one of the most difficult aspects of the book to tolerate was the amount of sex "scenes" and references. Obviously its original publication source needs to be considered, but at the same time the scenes begin to weigh the material down because of how unnecessary they are. There are only about four instances of sex in the book, but two of them are completely unnecessary, and a third is wholly unwelcome despite its purpose. The scenes aren't even written to be erotic, thankfully, but that only makes it obvious that they were included to appease or with the intent to appease the people at Playboy. Sexual themes, subjects and scenes are welcome whenever the serve a purpose but when they have none it just reads like a pathetic appeal to the basest of human urges.

Finally, and most shockingly, it seems necessary to point out Johnson's difficult to follow prose. Things are often mentioned off-hand or completely ignored which forces the reader to reexamine a passage several times in order to comprehend what has transpired. For instance, within the first three pages Luntz is confronted by Gambol, and for whatever reason climbs into his car. The problem with that particular passage is that Luntz begins to talk about leaving the car, without Johnson referencing him ever getting in it. These types of omissions are minimal, but present. Much more common are passages in which too much happens in a single paragraph or half-page and they need to be re-read to determine what happened and how.

Other reviews I have skimmed of this novel referenced it's dialog as its saving grace, but while the dialog is fluid and natural (for a crime novel, at any rate), it is far from redeeming. Johnson's foray into genre fiction is totally unimpressive and only a dozen feet from a dismal travesty.


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