'Nobody Move' by Denis Johnson

Crime noir by the numbers adds up to fun

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For years in the 1930s, Raymond Chandler wrote to eat, not to produce iconic literature, and I suspect that he would scoff at the "crime noir" writing industry his modest collection of books spawned.

There are imitators by the dozen, largely failures. The secret is being a good writer in the first place. Enter Denis Johnson, the talented novelist whose 2007 Vietnam book, "Tree of Smoke," matched Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" horror for horror.

"Nobody Move"
By Denis Johnson
Farrarm Straus & Giroux ($23)

Johnson understands the implications of the now over-worn phrase "banality of evil" much like Chandler did long before Hannah Arendt. Murder was just part of the deal, like bad food, watered-down whiskey and cold-hearted women in cheap print dresses.

Johnson took on the challenge to write a crime noir novel in installments for Playboy magazine. It's now available in a garish red jacket with "bullet holes" revealing the cartoon-like figures of Jimmy and Anita, criminals, killers and lovers.

Johnson quickly sketches out the familiar "noir" dilemma -- imperfect but likable people on the run from nasty violent hit men. In tone, "Nobody Move" sounds like Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," moved to the dull towns of Central California.

Johnson's baddies, Ernest Gambol and Juarez, reportedly eat the sex organs of guys who do them wrong, in Jimmy Luntz's case, a gambling debt.

In a wry touch, Johnson introduces Jimmy in a white dinner jacket he wears for barbershop quartet competition. He's still wearing it when he shoots Gambol in the leg to escape that cannibalistic fate.

Of course, there's a beautiful woman, Anita, wronged by her crooked lawyer husband, but with a plan for payback. Despite the dark cloud above Jimmy's head, he's the best accomplice she can find under the circumstances.

Suspense follows as Gambol follows Jimmy and Anita. Organized in expert fashion by Johnson, the tension rises by the page. At 196 of them, there's no room for digression.

He's too talented a writer to allow this writing exercise to follow predictable lines. He's also too smart to invest his writing time in complexity and a "larger purpose," either.

"Nobody Move" holds your interest while you're reading it; when you're not, it seems as airy as popcorn.

Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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