By Sarah Weinman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
By Denis Johnson
Farrar Straus Giroux. 196 pp. $23
It may seem odd that Denis Johnson has followed up on his National Book Award-winning "Tree of Smoke," a sprawling novel about the Vietnam War, with its diametric opposite, a slim, blackly comic crime tale reminiscent of those published by Fawcett Gold Medal half a century ago. But John Banville made a similar move when he adopted the name Benjamin Black for his crime novels after he won the Booker Prize; Kate Atkinson refashioned her voice within the detective fiction template; and for each the change fits like a sleek leather glove. The same can't quite be said of Johnson, but, like his literary colleagues in crime, he displays a wicked sense of fun.
Johnson originally wrote "Nobody Move" for serialization in Playboy last year, which explains the narrative's four-part arc of cons, scams, grifts and guns. Jimmy Luntz, an occasional barbershop quartet singer, is a small-time hood with "a Santa Anita sheet folded up in the pocket of his blinding white tux," still feeling the itch to bet despite constant disappointment. Anita Desilvera is the embodiment of the femme fatale, ready to play her trump card -- an embezzled stash of $2.3 million -- after becoming "a vagrant, a felon, and a future divorcee" in a single morning. Among those zigzagging through Bakersfield, Calif., looking for the money are Anita's soon-to-be-ex, a crooked judge and Jimmy, whose collision course with her sets up for a cascading-domino sequence of violence.
The brevity of this novel limits Johnson's scope, but he still has room for zingers (like a character who gets "thirty percent drunk"); observations of human nature (Anita: "Do you always talk about people like they're invisible?" Jimmy: "Usually just women"); and an extended gunfire sequence that plays like an outtake from "Tree of Smoke." "Nobody Move" does not rank as a major work, but enjoy it for what it is: an idiosyncratic journey through familiar terrain.
Weinman writes about crime and mystery fiction at http://www.sarahweinman.com.