The Bwog Book Club invites you to join our discussion of the first segment of Denis

Johnson’s serial noir,
Nobody Move. If you missed July’s issue of Playboy, feel free to read the plot summary provided here and join us next time for a discussion of second segment published in this month’s magazine. 

Here are the main events from section one:

Jimmy Luntz, who starts off in a barbershop chorus, receives a ride from a man named Gambol. After they talk in the car and pull over at a rest stop, he realizes Gambol has been hired to hurt him because of a debt Luntz owes to a man named Juarez.  Luntz shoots Gambol, calls an ambulance, and goes after Juarez.  Meanwhile, Anita Desilvera, a woman about to divorce her husband, drinks heavily, and is good with guns, sees Luntz disposing of his weapon. Predictably, they end up sleeping together (after having sex in case you aren’t familiar with that euphemism.) Meanwhile Gambol rehabilitates with an unnamed woman, and plans to come back at Luntz.

1. For starters, Nobody Move is, of course, published as a serial in a magazine.  How much of Johnson’s writing and narrative structure do you think is determined by this?

MQ: For me, Johnson’s pacing was the most overt indication of the story as a serial.  Johnson structured Nobody Move around three story-lines, each one developed in short scenes sectioned off with asterisks like periods. These divisions helped the reader grasp the distinction between each storyline and helped him follow the passage of time and the scene’s setting, but it made the pace less fluid and more disjointed.   I found that separating scenes efficiently and economically clarified the plot and development of action, but in the end it seemed like just a way to cram in a lot of action in as little space as possible. 

DI: I think the serial format made Johnson’s writing a little more hokey than he might otherwise have wanted (although my guess is that he enjoyed that aspect of it, who the hell really knows). The book gets into the action right away and also falls on a lot of traditional crime-story stereotypes, right down to the names.* I definitely agree that it came across as choppy, and I think Johnson was trying to get some action out of the way so he could get on to the development, which is sort of the reverse of the normal order.

* You might recognize these names from some things that are great. Juarez shares his name with the classic crime-ridden border town across the way from El Paso; it’s where Bob Dylan gets stuck in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, and where the police catch up with Johnny Cash in “Cocaine Blues.” Gambol is also the dude in The Dark Knight who loses a henchman to ocular penetration, and ends up getting a Glasgow smile from the Joker.

2. The plot and style fits a certain predictable noir prototype, but much of the story does not. How does Johnson deviate from the noir genre? What surprises you?

MQ: Speaking very broadly here, Johnson’s initial depiction of Luntz perfectly matches my notion of the typical noir protag.  His name, his catchy lingo, the situation he finds himself in the first scene all fit the mold.  In his portrayal of Luntz, Johnson seems to not only relish the norms of noir plot and character, but also its direct, no-frills prose.  The majority of the sentences describing Luntz are short and simple, like “He put the Caddy behind the building and wiped his face with his sleeve….” All subject, active verb, object. But Johnson takes a completely different tone with Anita.  The disparity between the characters, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Unlike Luntz, whom I struggle to sympathize for throughout the story, I immediately sympathize for Anita.

DI: Anita is definitely the biggest deviation in terms of characters, and although I’m not sure if I sympathize with her yet I do think she’s definitely the most interesting character. Not only is she a badass lady, but she’s much different than other badass ladies with her insecurities and her marriage problem. Luntz is more boring, but I think one thing that’s surprising about Luntz is how he’s not particularly adept at anything, but ends up overcoming his enemies, at least early on, because he’s smart enough, cold enough, skilled enough. He’s not pathetic enough for it to be funny but he’s not good enough to kick ass, which isn’t that novel an idea but makes the story have potential.

3. Coming off of the previous question, how successful are these deviations? Do they add depth to the characters and add nuance to the development of the story or do they come off as plot devices?

MQ: The transition to Anita breaks the consistency of Johnson’s style, but for the most part the style breaks are pretty strong.  For me, Luntz comes alive through Anita and the way Johnson parallels the two characters.  In Anita’s first scene, we have “She sat down leaving her coat on and bowed her head against the seat in front of her for several seconds, and then raised it up weeping.” Although Johnson adds an unprecedented level of poignancy to the story in this scene, he skillfully recalls the previous scene in the bathroom when Luntz “…put his hands on the sink and bowed his head and breathed in and out several times before raising his eyes to the mirror.”

But later when Luntz watches the end of The Last Champion, as if to finish the act for Anita, the interwovenness of the two story lines wears thin. Although Johnson’s use of the movie is exciting and novel with Anita, bringing the reader back here with Luntz seems a bit forced. The last scene of the movie in which the hero rallies to miraculously beat his opponent, who Luntz notes is forty pounds beyond his weight class, comes off as a decidedly unsubtle nod to Luntz’s own scrappy triumph over Gambol. 

DI: I actually like the move of bringing Luntz into the film. What I got from that scene was that Luntz just couldn’t relate to the movie bullshit, and that his reaction to the boxer beating the guy forty pounds over his weight class was that it was a dumb dramatic convention that would never happen in real life. A boxing match is a (reasonably) fair fight where both competitors know what they’re doing, and his (temporary?) triumph over Gambol is just the opposite.

4.  There’s a lot of plot development and little psychological detail.  How does Johnson manage to convey what’s going on inside his characters’ heads?

MQ: I don’t think Luntz is a particularly self-reflective guy, so I think that Johnson avoids delving into the psychological complexities and mental vagrancies of Luntz’s character is ok.  In fact, I think the absence of interior mediation in and of itself informs the reader of these characters.  These characters don’t seem to have the time, energy, or interest in contemplating the psychological connotations of their actions.

DI: Word. But I do think the way the third-person narration shifts around particular characters tells you a lot about them by implication.

5. In Nobody Move, Johnson spends a lot of time building plot within short scenes and constructing catchy dialogue much like director would do with a film. How, if at all, does Nobody Move resemble a film? Do you think Johnson intended for this resemblance?

MQ: Like a camera, Johnson often focuses on physical and visual details of his characters, without penetrating past their exteriors. For example, when he details Gambol’s bullet wound he does not necessarily describe how the how the pain feels, but how the pain looks.  But Johnson’s images are so well-made that the reader gets a visceral sense of Gambol’s pain as his “purple lipless” wound “…seemed to well up and spill over, suck back, well up, spill over.”

Also, Johnson often relied on physical details and personal props to lend credence to his characters. There’s Anita’s Popov flask, Gambol’s calfskin wallet, Luntz’s checkered bowtie and white t-shirt, among others.  All of these provide the reader with quick, clear mental images almost as vividly as a film would. The descriptions while powerful are somewhat unusual in prose.  Later Johnson gives an alarmingly expressive snap-shot of Anita’s ex-husband with “Desilvera sat in the corner looking rich.”  I’ve never come across a description like this, but with one image he sums up Desilvera’s persona more effectively than he probably would in an entire paragraph detailing his weekly expenses. 

DI: It reminds me of No Country for Old Men in a way, but without as clean a narrative and without the haunting framing of Sheriff Bell’s narration. Then again maybe it only reminds me of that because I haven’t read enough other books. But that wasn’t McCarthy’s best book and this isn’t gonna be Johnson’s best book, even though I like them both. I can tell you right now I’m not going to like the ending as much as “and then I woke up.”

But enough about that. I do think that it was a very visual novel, but that it’s not necessarily easy to capture on film. A lot of the best parts of the story so far come from the sentiments and language of the descriptions, and that would be hard to display. But in general, I agree that the power of the images do a whole lot to move the story along.

Back to the No Country for Old Men comparison, although many parts of this one are cinematic, I’m not sure this would make a good movie because the power seems to be in the way the images are described rather than what they are (“sat in the corner looking rich”); obviously, No Country for Old Men did make a great movie.

Feel free to respond to one, any or all of these questions.  The book club would love your feedback!