Nobody Move A Novel

Denis Johnson




Trade Paperback

208 Pages


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From the National Book Award–winning, bestselling author of Tree of Smoke comes a provocative thriller set in the American West. Nobody Move, which first appeared in the pages of Playboy, is the story of an assortment of lowlifes in Bakersfield, California, and their cat-and-mouse game over $2.3 million. Touched by echoes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Nobody Move is at once an homage to and a variation on literary form. It salutes one of our most enduring and popular genres—the American crime novel—but with a grisly humor and outrageousness that are Denis Johnson's own. Sexy, suspenseful, and above all entertaining, Nobody Move shows one of our greatest novelists at his versatile best.


Praise for Nobody Move

"Hot on the heels of his National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson—by far one of our best writers—has written what might seem like a side step: a short, tight crime noir, produced under deadline as a serial for Playboy magazine. Like so many contemporary crime narratives (Pulp Fiction comes instantly to mind), Johnson's new novel, Nobody Move, keeps a narrow focus, homing in on the plight of Jimmy Luntz, a barbershop chorus singer, compulsive gambler and Steve Buscemi type who owes money to a guy named Ernest Gambol, who collects for a guy—a dealer of some sort—named Juarez . . . To give much more of the plot away would be to betray this hugely enjoyable, fast-moving novel . . . One senses that Johnson took great pleasure in writing on a deadline, keeping the story tight to the bone, honing his sentences down to the same kind of utilitarian purity he demonstrated in Tree of Smoke. His descriptive passages—and they are few and far between—show his poetic mastery . . . Johnson is one of the last of the hard-core American realist writers, working—in his own way—along a line that might be charted from Melville and Stephen Crane, with a detour through Flannery O'Connor and Don DeLillo. He routinely explores the nature of crime—all his novels have it in one form or another—in relation to the nature of grace (yes, grace) and the wider historical and cosmic order. So how does Nobody Move fit into his oeuvre? As Susan Sontag might say, it seems to operate as a flight from interpretation, settling into the genre for a ride, looking away from the wider implications of the world to enjoy itself by unfolding action within a neatly closed universe. But something more is at hand, because Johnson is a great writer, and even a casual entertainment, written well, has meaning. If Tree of Smoke—intricately plotted, embracing the entire Vietnam era and bringing it up alongside the war in Iraq—was a huge piece of work, a Guernica of sorts, then Nobody Move is a Warhol soup can, a flinty, bright piece of pop art meant to be instantly understood and enjoyed. It opens with the line 'Jimmy Luntz had never been to war,' and it closes with two characters near a river. All of its symbols—if you want to take a shot at finding deeper meaning—are in your face and seem to be saying, at least to me, that for the most part, most of us live within the status quo, one way or another, just trying to locate the next move."—David Means, The New York Times Book Review

"So noir it's almost pitch-black, this follow-up to Johnson's National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke concerns a lovable loser named Luntz—barbershop-chorus member, Hawaiian-shirt wearer, and inveterate gambler—who is in debt to an underworld bad guy. 'My idea of a health trip is switching to menthols and getting a tan,' he tells Anita Desilvera, a beautiful Native American woman whom he beds after a boozy night out, and who has bad guys of her own to escape. Against a desolate Western background of shantytowns and trailer parks, the pair's story plays out largely according to the genre's dictates, with wisecrack-laden dialogue and evenly dispersed cliffhangers that are a legacy of the work's genesis as a serialization in Playboy. But there are also moments of arresting lyrical beauty—a river's swollen surface under a crescent moon 'resembled the unquiet belly of a living thing you could step onto and walk across.'"—The New Yorker

"Jimmy Luntz has got to be the first protagonist in noir history to begin his blood-soaked descent singing in a men's choir. Jimmy's pipes are only the first clue that Nobody Move isn't your run-of-the-mill, bullet-hole-jacketed crime novel. Instead, this fast, funny diversion is protean writer Denis Johnson's sly follow-up to his Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke, winner of the 2007 National Book Award. It can be dicey for a literary lion to wander into the crime genre. Adhere to form and the author risks condescending or producing a faint copy of something disposable; subvert those conventions and the result is often flat, a thriller with no thrills. As if that balance weren't tricky enough, Johnson chose to write Nobody Move as a four-part serial for Playboy magazine. Well, as his Iraq War-distracted characters might say: Mission accomplished. Nobody Move does exactly what noir should do—propel the reader downhill, with its cast of losers, louts, and toughs as they cheat, shoot, and exploit one another into fast-talking oblivion. Yet there's a playful tilt, a humane rendering of its dark characters, and a relentless buzz in the sentences that recalls Jesus' Son, Johnson's tight little classic of fractured junkie transcendence. Johnson's smartest move is to avoid the overplotting that infects many contemporary crime novels. Yes, every permutation has seemingly been done, every villain imagined, every plot turn played. So rather than invent some unlikely premise or gin the game with eye-rolling twists, Johnson simply gives us one guy (Luntz) who owes another guy (Juarez) money, so that a third guy (Gambol) is sent to dispatch the first guy . . . Johnson is marvelously fluent in noir. His short, quick lines hum with caustic humor and an awareness of what he's writing: a rain storm produces 'ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy,' a motel is 'made of fake logs and cheap in its soul.'"—Jess Walter, The Boston Globe

"First serialized in Playboy (wouldn't Dickens have loved that?), Nobody Move, packs white heat."—Vanity Fair

"Johnson's latest, a burning shot of neonoir titled Nobody Move, distills its hero's knack for doing the wrong thing and runs with it. The novel opens as Jimmy Luntz—competitive choir singer, gambling addict and all-around shady guy—gets picked up in Bakersfield, California, by Gambol, a Cadillac-driving thug who has been dispatched to collect money or break a bone or two. Jimmy manages to shoot (but not kill) Gambol, and then goes on the lam. He soon meets Anita, a lush who is in the process of robbing her corrupt ex-husband of millions. Together, they try to stay alive amid ambushes, torture sessions and gunfire. It's bracing to experience this wisecracking and sexy novel's speed, the ways that Jimmy bumbles his way directly into mayhem. But compared with Johnson's previous work, Nobody Move has little aftertaste. There's none of Jesus' Son's creepy drug euphoria or spiritual back draft. As a palate-cleansing riff on Dashiell Hammett, it's great."—Michael Miller, Time Out Chicago

"A sly take on California crime noir fiction."—Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Having won the National Book Award for 2007's fever-dreamed Tree of Smoke, former Texas State professor Denis Johnson does a 180 with Nobody Move, a slim but engaging caper novel. Where his previous effort was literarily complex and fraught with geopolitics, the current offering is straight-up crime fiction. Jimmy Luntz, a losing gambler from Alhambra, California, is on the run from a passel of nasty debt collectors sporting names like Gambol, Juarez, and the Tall Man. He eventually crosses paths with Anita Desilvera, who is likewise adrift but for a much different reason. Anita's run of bad luck began with an indictment for allegedly embezzling $2.3 million from a school bond fund and continued with a divorce filing by her husband, Hank, the real embezzler; a paid-off judge then denied her any compensation. Anita enlists Jimmy in her effort to extract the ill-gotten loot from Hank. As Jimmy's pursuers close in and Anita ruthlessly exacts her revenge, Johnson dials the mayhem up to eleven, and the whole affair rumbles to a bloody conclusion. Like Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, Nobody Move is a rousing shoot-'em-up that demonstrates how literary novelists use the conceits of genre fiction as means to surprisingly satisfying ends."—Mike Shea, Texas Monthly

"My first reaction upon opening Denis Johnson's new short novel was to wonder why a well-regarded literary novelist would want to write an Elmore Leonard book. Johnson, who won the National Book Award for the Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke, has not, of course, actually written an Elmore Leonard novel. Nobody Move is his own riff on that archetypal American pop genre, the hard-boiled noir thriller. But it is a tribute to Leonard, who does this kind of thing as well as it's ever been done, that Nobody Move seems so much like one of his novels. It's got all the Leonard requisites: a lowlife but somehow noble hero; a beautiful (and in this case deranged) broad; bad people in both the legit and criminal worlds who want to do them harm—all conjured with deadpan humor in lean and supple prose. Nobody Move first saw light serially in Playboy. Perhaps that accounts for the reckless energy of the version now published between hard covers . . . While Johnson weaves all this together with an expert touch, he gives the familiar tropes a deft, off-kilter spin. Anita, for example, is crazed with self-hatred and a lust for revenge. And Gambol, though a very bad man, grows increasingly sympathetic as he falls for the nurse. Johnson tosses in little narrative fillips that add texture and depth without drawing attention to themselves or slowing the story . . . Johnson takes the story to an ending no one guided by noir convention could expect. At first the ending feels like a cheat, but after only a moment's reflection, I saw how cleverly it turns the story inside out, enlarging my understanding of the principal characters—and, dare I say, the human condition."—Chauncey Mabe, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

"Nobody Move is Johnson's first published novel since his 2007 Vietnam epic and National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke. In 2008, Nobody Move was first published in four part installments in Playboy magazine. The thriller focuses on low-life gambler and barber shop quartet singer Jimmy Luntz. Like all classic noirs, Nobody Move has good guys and bad guys, although nearly all of its characters are gun-carrying murderers, or aspiring murderers. The plot is simple: Luntz owes money, Luntz can't pay up, Luntz has to do something or he's dead, bad guys get pissed and come for Luntz. While a plot is obviously necessary, the story line doesn't have to be entirely engaging because Johnson is a master at portraying lowlives and unstable rejects, while creating dialogue that never stalls. Nobody Move is set in California and the West is Johnson's true literary home; his work captures a dirty, but somehow marvelous, feel for the region."—Dan Watson, The Daily Iowan

"There used to be more to Playboy than centerfolds and The Girl Next Door. People, not just men, used to read the magazine for articles written by the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Last summer, the same critics who've long noted Playboy's declining cultural relevance were surprised to learn that Playboy had commissioned Denis Johnson—author of the 2007 National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke—to write a 40,000-word serial novel. Given the impotence of Playboy's impact—losses for the last quarter of 2008 exceeded $145 million—Johnson's crime caper will likely get more exposure now that it's been published in book form by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Nobody Move deserves the attention. Not just for refreshing the hard-boiled idiom of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also for inventing a variation of the ethical obsessions of Charles Dickens. One can imagine Johnson reviving characters the way Dickens did in London newspapers—except for the fact that Johnson's people keep dying. Instead of the morally streamlined Oliver, David and Dorrit, we get the morally clotted Jimmy Luntz, whose gambling debts to gangster Juarez get him into hot water. Meanwhile, alcoholic Anita Desilvera is embroiled in a divorce settlement with a California prosecutor, who manages to embezzle, with the help of a crooked judge, $2.3 million. She falls in with Luntz after he takes a rain-check on the date his kneecaps had with a tire iron courtesy of Gambol, Juarez's No. 1 goon. Luntz shoots Gambol through the leg to launch an unexpected and rather touching narrative thread that changes how you think of noir."—John Stoehr, Pittsburgh City Paper

"Scoundrel Jimmy Luntz considers himself a lucky guy, a lucky guy who is many things to many people: To his debt-collector, he's a dead man. To his lover, he's an irresistibly no-good loser. To the readers of Denis Johnson's crude, fun crime novel, Nobody Move, Jimmy Luntz is all of the above, and anything but an ordinary criminal. Set in the Wild West of modern-day Bakersfield, Calif., the vices and cravings of the lowlifes who surround and rope in Jimmy crash together in this dark tale. After racking up an impressive gambling debt, Jimmy is abducted by a Cadillac-driving thug named Gambol, who promises torture and threatens death if Jimmy fails to settle up his gambling dues with head brute, Juarez. Speeding down the desert highway, Jimmy seizes his chance, grabs Gambol's gun and shoots him in the leg, leaving him near-bled dry at a roadside rest stop. Newly endowed with a gleaming car and a wallet thick with stolen cash, Jimmy rides this lucky streak until he meets Anita Desilvera, a newly divorced bombshell with a penchant for booze and big money. As the new lovers prepare for a $2.3 million heist, Gambol's wrath mounts, Juarez's taste for revenge heightens and Jimmy's luck unravels faster than he can bet. With sadistic humor and sharp, barebones dialogue, Johnson evokes the feral grittiness of the old West, the lustful obsessions of the new, and the addictive thrills and untamed reality that define both. In Nobody Move, he has created characters and crimes that will leave you gripping, if only in your imagination, the creamy white leather seat of a speeding, stolen Caddy."—Katherine B. Olson, Florida Weekly

"Real gangsters aren't particularly smart or wise. If they were, they'd be hedge fund managers with secret Swiss bank accounts. Mostly, they're dim and desperate and, if clever at all, gifted with the ability to know when a situation might get worse. They don't do long-term planning. National Book Award winner Denis Johnson's new novel, Nobody Move, gives us authentic goons: eternal fall guys, not cool criminals. They're people who turn to crime because they can't get anything right. With a Mamet-like ear, Johnson makes their deadly, idiotic squabbles sing . . . This noirish little shoot'em-up is faster-paced than Johnson's much-celebrated novel Tree of Smoke (2007) or story collection Jesus' Son (1992). It's a rogue sonnet. Yet there's something about this tale of losers on the lam that sticks in the mind. As the book piles on the tough talk and lowlife locales, its tragicomic nobodies begin to look a lot like regular folk, but without the middle-class safety net and with a wee bit more imagination than might be good for them. In Nobody Move, Jimmy and Anita almost seem sensible for fighting to keep what little they have. As she gushes about choosing him for her lover (and partner in crime), he quips, 'I just think it's bullshit for you to act like you had a choice.' One could be melodramatic and say that at least they have each other, but that fact is unlikely to save them. Johnson's triumph is that he makes poetry out of these two emphatically unpoetic lives."—Laurel Maury, NPR

"The deaths in the last half-decade of Bellow, Mailer, and Updike have left us running a deficit in Great American Writers. What we've gained (admittedly a cheap trade) is a newly entertaining parlor game: Can you name the living national canon? Philip Roth and Toni Morrison are probably gimmes. But who else? Don DeLillo? Cormac McCarthy? Joan Didion? Thomas Pynchon? Having just bulleted through his new, supremely pleasurable novel Nobody Move, I hereby nominate Denis Johnson. It's not really a left-field pick, not since he won the 2007 National Book Award for his Vietnam opus Tree of Smoke . . . In any case, Denis Johnson's latest novel, his ninth (previously serialized in Playboy—there! another reason to read Playboy) is really, really good, and odds are it'll sell plenty. For Nobody Move is a slim joyride, popcorn accessible, a babes-and-guns exercise in pulp fiction written with a poet's care and precision (Denis Johnson is also a poet). Some critics may set Nobody Move beside the big, magnificent Tree of Smoke, and call it minor Johnson—but I'd call it his No Country for Old Men not so much lightweight as streamlined. It's the most entertaining book I've read this year . . . Johnson is crowd-friendly enough to give Nobody Move a climactic shootout or two, and the strings of jabbing, tough-guy dialogue recall Raymond Chandler. But this is no cheap noir-ish pastiche. Johnson distinctiveness as a writer is everywhere in evidence: Anita watching her reflection in a quiet river; the description of a rainy street: 'Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy'; a California morning that 'seemed lit by a blowtorch.' The inevitable movie adaptation will be fun, but Johnson's prose has a meticulousness you don't want to miss. My only complaint—and it's the kind you want: Nobody Move is over before you know it."—Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast

"National Book Award winner Denis Johnson's darkly comic novel examines the appeal of get-rich-quick schemes—a welcome idea as out 401(k)s tank."—Jihan Thompson, Marie Claire

"A fast-paced, dialogue-driven crime novel that explores the baser instincts of some California grifters. Instead of more glamorous Los Angeles or San Francisco, Johnson sets his novel in the environs around Bakersfield . . . Paying homage to and subverting the conventions of the era of pulp fiction at its seediest."—Kirkus Reviews

"Originally serialized in Playboy, this combines Jim Thompson's violent noir, a shot of sexuality, and Elmore Leonard's darkly comic characters."—Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Jimmy Luntz had never been to war, but this was the sensation, he was sure of that—eighteen guys in a room, Rob, the director, sending them out—eighteen guys shoulder to shoulder, moving out on the orders...

Read the full excerpt



  • Nobody Move by Denis Johnson--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Denis Johnson's novel Nobody Move. From the National Book Award--winning, bestselling author of Tree of Smoke comes a provocative thriller set in the American West. Nobody Move, which first appeared in the pages of Playboy, is the story of an assortment of lowlifes in Bakersfield, California, and their cat-and-mouse game over 2.3 million dollars.



  • Denis Johnson

  • Denis Johnson is the author of six novels, three collections of poetry, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke was the 2007 winner of the National Book Award. He lives in northern Idaho.

  • Denis Johnson © Cindy Lee Johnson
    Denis Johnson