They'll Slay You
By Denis Johnson
208 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In 2007 Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for his sweeping novel of Vietnam, Tree of Smoke. Then, in a brilliant strategy for literary recharging, he signed up with Playboy magazine to publish a short novel in serial form with a monthly deadline. Nobody Move is the book that resulted: pure American crime story, with a grain running through it of Johnson's unmistakable Western lyricism and wit. The story centers on Jimmy Luntz, a thin and unimpressive fellow with the unfortunate twin habits of gambling and losing. He's about to get badly injured by the people he owes money to when he uncharacteristically manages to shoot his enforcer in the leg and run off with his car. Jimmy is lovably incapable of looking out for himself—he really should have finished the guy off. Soon enough he is chased down (the people after him are as inevitable as sunrise), but the journey along the way is where we have all the fun. Johnson has a particularly broad and surreal sense of humor—in the film of his book Jesus' Son, he makes a cameo appearance as the guy in the emergency room with the knife buried in his eye. The predictable comparisons between Nobody Move and the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett aren't quite accurate: Chandler's sense of humor was thin and dry as a blade, and Hammett had no sense of humor at all. The writer one repeatedly thinks of throughout this swift and entertaining story is Elmore Leonard, who, like Johnson, populates his work with likable losers capable of the most incredibly extravagant misjudgments. Finally, though, nobody has Johnson's poetry. His stark, funny, haunting images of violence and possible salvation stay with you, and they mark him as one of the great writers of our day.