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By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / ISBN: 978-0-374-22290-1
As heavy readers know, it's common for authors of big, giant, important, award-winning tomes to follow them up with something light and short, for a variety of reasons: as a literary 'cleanser,' to avoid burnout as a writer, to pre-deflate high audience expectations. But this turns out to be a real hit-and-miss proposition, also as heavy readers know; because sometimes you end up with, say, Michael Chabon's delightful genre experiment Gentlemen of the Road (his follow-up to the supposedly astounding Yiddish Policemen's Union, which believe it or not I still haven't gotten a chance to read), but then sometimes you end up with a book like Jonathan Lethem's truly dreadful You Don't Love Me Yet (his follow-up of sorts [there was a book of essays in between] to the also supposedly astounding Fortress of Solitude, which I also still haven't gotten a chance yet to read).
And now we have our latest example to judge, Denis Johnson's short pulp-fiction exercise Nobody Move (originally published serially last year in Playboy), his first book since the mindblowing 2007 National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke (which I've also reviewed in the past, and whoo man what a phenomenal freaking book that is). And how is Nobody Move? Well, in a cliched nutshell: He shoots, he scores! And that's because Johnson does here what Chabon did as well, but Lethem simply did not -- he takes the light cleanser project just as seriously as he did the giant important award-winning one, even with them designed from the start to serve two very different purposes, honoring those intentions and taking a lot of care to get the details right. For example, just like most pulp projects, Johnson's novel is a look at a series of petty criminals and lowlife losers (in this case centered around the central California town of Bakersfield), which of course was one of the big things to originally differentiate the genre from the lurid crime tales of the Victorian Age that came right before it; that instead of featuring criminal masterminds or fiendish supervillains, the characters in pulp tales live out on the edges of society, too stupid and cowardly to go for the big score but rather sticking to the petty schemes they know definitively to work, trying to get away with them as long as possible without getting caught, while nonetheless always dreaming of the day their ship finally comes in.
In this case, for example, there is the weasely schlub Jimmy Luntz, the closest thing we have to an 'antihero' if any of them can be called that; then there's the aging enforcer Gambol, who spends the book chasing Luntz after getting shot in the leg by him in the first five pages; there is Anita, the unusually attractive Native American alcoholic who has just gotten busted embezzling several million dollars from the company she works for (in actuality a frame-up by her ex-husband, plus the crooked judge who granted him a divorce), who drunkenly hooks up with Luntz while both are on the run; there is Juarez, Gambol's boss who Luntz screwed over not too long ago (hence Gambol being on his trail), a Middle Easterner who tells everyone he's Hispanic and who dresses like a gangsta rapper; and then there's Mary, a former army medic dispatched at the beginning of the story to go find Gambol and quietly patch him up, who just happens to be Juarez's ex-wife and who just happens to now hate him but needs his money. And then the thing that brings them all together is not much more than a MacGuffin, and not actually very important to the story at all (you know, like the glowing briefcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction), with the point instead to spend 200 pages watching these people all chase each other around, while spouting unbelievably great lines of dialogue at each other.
Because that of course is one of the most well-known things about Johnson's writing style, what generates so many admirers but what you need to look out for as well; that if you're not already a fan of people like David Mamet, who attempt to boil stories down to the absolute minimum amount of words needed to make their point, you need to stay the hell away from Johnson no matter how much your friends keep recommending him, or else suffer a fit of self-righteous eye-rolling so bad that it will threaten to induce a seizure. And in fact Johnson delivers not only his usual brilliant yet controversial clipped dialogue here in Nobody Move, but even sometimes very cleverly skips over big sections of action-text when he thinks the audience doesn't need it; to cite one infamous example that I've already mentioned, how the opening scene of the book is of Gambol and Luntz riding in a car together, Gambol telling Luntz not to mess with the shotgun he's accidentally discovered in the back seat, while in the very next paragraph Gambol is now laying in the desert with a bullet in his leg, with it only then that we learn that he had been taking Luntz out somewhere desolated in order to do him some kind of unspecified harm.
This is why fans of the genre love pulp fiction, after all, because it's storytelling taken to its most terse, rat-a-tat extreme; a meaty yet bare-boned way of telling a tale, like watching a couple of scrawny yet professional lightweight boxers duke it out, a chance to admire the literary arts at its most stripped-down and essential. And this is certainly the case with Nobody Move, with a series of developments that I won't divulge any more of but let's just say are always unexpected, funny and horrifying at the same time just like pulp fiction should be, held together with sparkling gritty dialogue and just the general scuminess of the entire milieu. And I don't have a lot more to say about it, actually, because frankly there isn't a lot more to say about it -- when all is said and done, it is nothing more than a genre tale, never once straying from the well-known tropes that define pulp fiction, which is why it's getting an above-average but not spectacular score today; yet is pulled off almost perfectly, which is why it gets a boost in its rating specifically for those who are existing fans of, say, Raymond Chandler. If you're the kind of person who likes reading only one or two pulp tales a year, this should be one of them; and of course for those who like the genre more than that, this title is absolutely not to be missed.
Out of 10: 9.2, or 9.9 for lovers of pulp fiction