let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: nobody move (denis johnson)

denis johnson is that guy you met at someone's roof party like four summers ago: his face and the way he holds his beer are familiar and you vaguely remember something about his working with your friend's old boyfriend, but it takes you another conversation to realize you've almost completely forgotten the conversation you already had with him. already dead is the conversation johnson and i seem to have had; the roof party in this scenario is my shelf either in san francisco in the careless early aughts or my senior year of college (i know i've got a copy of that book somewhere, but the summary in that salon review i just linked is only familiar in the loosest possible sense of the word), and nobody move is our more lucid reconnection. i'm glad i was paying attention this time: at 196 pages, nobody move doesn't pause to breathe too often. it pauses exactly three times, actually: johnson wrote it in four parts for playboy, where it was published in 2008. this, kids, is how a modern serial should look.

the consensus among critics seems to be that johnson approached nobody move as a palate cleanser after his mighty national-book-award-winning vietnam novel, tree of smoke, a work that's reported to have been knocking about in his head for twenty years. he does seem to be enjoying himself with the genre (modern crime) and the audience (degenerates**): his main character (jimmy luntz, an especially shitty gambler) starts out in a white tux, for example, because he's taking part in a barbershop chorus competition in bakersfield. johnson's down-and-out dame, the lovely and equally luckless anita desilvera, gets a playboy (or perhaps a letters-to-penthouse) intro - jimmy's punching way above his weight with her, and we hear about it at length - but she's steely and funny and vengeful, and johnson gives her room to be more than a pair of tits. she reminds me a bit of frances mcdormand in blood simple, actually: she's considerably meaner (she's got the most vicious set piece in the book, actually), but her scenes have a crunch-and-thump physicality i associate with coen brothers heroines. nobody move has a galloping inevitability i associate with the coen brothers as a general proposition, actually; it disappoints me that this has been noted elsewhere (o, to be a beautiful and unique reviewer-snowflake!), but the point's a solid one. this is a mirthless northern california, moreover, that i can get behind: bakersfield aside, most of the story crawls around in grotty rest stops and bars north of sacramento along highway that looks best after nightfall. as settings go, i prefer these unlovable inland towns to armistead maupin's san francisco and the misty coastal scree in johnson's already dead (hey, i remembered something else about it!); they're brief and brutal, and they suit johnson's language. superfluous blow jobs aside (oh, playboy), this could be the best book i've read since let the great world spin; i'd ask you to keep that from raymond chandler,*** but i suspect he'd approve.

VICTOR: let the great world spin,**** though the crowd was behind nobody move - i was re-reading it on the way in to work this morning and managed to miss my subway stop. that never happens (re-reading, that is).

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you encountered denis johnson? how'd you get along?

02 have you seen blood simple? if you're a coen brothers fan, how does it rank among their movies for you?

03 did you know that shel silverstein drew cartoons and wrote travel stories for playboy back in the day? that scandalized me when i was a tween.

04 did you know that silverstein also wrote "a boy named sue"?

05 ...and that he wrote a sequel about sue's father?! sorry, i'll stop talking about shel silverstein.

06 what character or plot device in jj abrams's television work would you most like to see in a film adaptation of Big-Time Literature like let the great world spin?

*previous battle here.

**kidding, mostly. i once purchased a playboy, actually - the "women of the pac-10" issue. long story.

***speaking of chandler, i read a marvelous review of nobody move in which the writer noted that johnson had studied with raymond chandler at the iowa writers' workshop in the seventies. with, like, a ouija board? (they meant carver.)

****which jj abrams is apparently interested in filming - hmm.


Amanda said...

03/04/05 From a letter by Ursula Nordstrom, children's editress extraordinaire 
"I had luncheon with Shel Silverstein recently. I don't know if you know some of his children's books for us, or some of his stuff in Playboy. Anyhow, he is a great man and I love him. I sat next to him at luncheon and was so impressed with the sense of great at-ease-with-himself which he gave off. He just seemed to be hitting on all 24 cylinders. I was feeling particularly out-of-sorts and displeased with myself that day so I asked him for advice on how to get to be the way he is. "Have you had some psycho-therapy, Shel?" I asked admiringly. "How come you are just so great?" "No therapy!" he said loudly, in the quiet restaurant. "Why should I? If I were hung up on goats why I would just find myself the sweetest prettiest cleanest goat in the world, that's what I'd do." Heads turned and I changed the subject."

rachel (heart of light) said...

wait, you don't re-read? at all? ever? i think i re-read as much as i read.

also, tried desperately to convince my mom to marry shel silverstein when i was a kid. she said no, blamed it on his bald head. i was not at all pleased.

furiousmuse said...

1> Yes, I've read "Jesus' Son" and we got along just fine in that one. I would love to read more. But I have to start reading the books I've been buying first. Or go to the library.
3>No! That's awesome.
4>I need to get out more.
5>... Really!
6>It's late. I lack an intelligent response.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: Jesus’s Son has memorable stuff about Mennonites and knives in people’s faces.  I’m inching towards Angels for Wallace-related reasons but this review http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/12/a-bright-shining-lie/6434/ (sheepishly offered up with a thousand pardons) does much to diminish further enthusiasm.  True: Myers’ own critics seem legion, unhappy with the strong flavor of his appraisals.  True: his critical sensibilities are definitely of the zero-sum blood sport varietal.  But lots of his analysis is brilliantly structured like jokes (funny-ass ones too), and when he’s not raining shit on beloved authors he reviews and encourages interest in books related to vegetarianism, a practice for which he might earn a little goodwill approbation from likeminded souls.  One should at least concede he doesn’t resort to the weird bombast of, say, the salon dot com review of Already Dead.
02: I saw it a long time ago.  It was good, I think.  Nowadays, the test of a good Coens’ film is whether there’s a HUMAN character present, viz. Fargo or The Big Lebowski or No Country.  On the other hand, everything up to J.K. Simmons denouement in Burn After Reading is representative of their painful and miserable habitual affectation, along with the other Clooney films and Miller’s Crossing.
03-5: (Amanda’s is better, but) a non-satirical article in The Onion has it that Shel Silverstein told David Allan Coe to go ahead and record his abominable Nothing Sacred and Underground Album records.  He’s kind of sort of a dastard (Silverstein, that is; Coe too).
06: The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was the one running amuck in Cloverfield, right?  The Ghostbusters remake?  I didn’t see it.

Hannah Mae said...

Quel coincidence - a Playboy has recently appeared in our bathroom (none of the roommates admit responsibility, and they would), and it's one of the Nobody Move issues - a middle segment, alas.  It's been very difficult to keep myself from reading it anyway.  (The articles!  The articles!)