The cover of Denis Johnson’s new novel Nobody Move screams KITSCHPULPNOIR with red and yellow letters and bullet holes spangling the jacket.
Famously serialized in Playboy, the story has plenty to like, or plenty to dislike, depending on how cooked you like your femme fatales, gun-toting heavies, and convoluted plots. I take mine hard as nails, so I count myself a fan.
Nobody Move is set in the American West, but it’s not the Pioneer West, the Cowboy West, Deadwood West, or even Polanski’s Chinatown West, although that comes close. It’s set in a nowhere-ville around Bakersfield, California, a locale that is promptly forgotten the moment you’ve driven through it. He’s too good a writer to write for the sake of convenience (he’s probably very familiar with the Interstate highways of California). His choice is unusual.
Ever since Chandler, noir is as soaked in California sun as it is in New York City smog. It would be fair to assume that the action would take place in the seediness of Los Angeles, or even Las Vegas’s garishness. Instead, the protagonists linger at the Feather River and drive toward the Mojave desert and past swaths of agribusiness crops. They shoot each other at rest stops, hide in culverts below a highway, and hole up in a ramshackle restaurant/camp in the mountains, the kind usually frequented by transient bikers. It is not a West made glamorous by the Coen Brothers or Tarantino. He chose a West that is forgettable. He chose brilliantly.
Both Western films and novels usually begin with a view of the land, an Alpha* that, at the story arc’s end, is matched by an Omega, an end that is a beginning.
Owen Wister describes The Virginian‘s vista as a “land without evil, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis.” Shane begins with a sweep of Edenic mountains, which is broken by the entrance of a rider, Shane himself. At the end of Westerns, the rider disappears again into the vista, or breaks from it, sinking into the world of civilization, leaving the wilderness as vast and unsullied as before.
The majestic and stark land of the West is code for the asceticism of the Western hero: Be hard. Be awe-inspiring. Be rugged. Within the arms of this landscape, he becomes even more heroic, and he knows it. He is devoted to the power of the land, and desires this power. This is the real romance of the Western.
The authors and directors of the genre understand this: Ford’s Monument Valley and Zane Grey’s Colorado River are as iconic as their stars. Their camera or words on a page travel over bluffs and along wide rivers, tracking the hero’s progress through the landscape and providing an almost tactile sensation of experience, which viewers and readers crave. The land is everything, both the “destination and the way.”
What is the land of Nobody Move?
It’s a region where fields are laced with pesticides. Where waters are siphoned off to fill the swimming pools of Los Angeles. Where gold mines spew poison. Where empty tract homes wait blankly for bankrupt owners to return. If anyone actually gazes at the landscape, it is only to toss an empty Coke can out the car window. It’s a “through place”–not a destination. It’s a commodity or a product, to be used and tossed when it is spent. His land is code for the throw-away manner Jimmy Luntz, Gambol, Anita Desilvera, and Juarez talk, have sex, drink, and die, and for their hard little nuggets of desperation and want that they discover and hoard.
In Johnson’s world, human beings have used up their Eden.
The protagonists neither seek to become “one with the West,” nor strive to differentiate themselves from it. The desert, the riverbank, the mountain roads are present only to be used and manipulated by humans. There is little tactile experience for the reader–the land passes by as removed as if the reader is riding in an air-conditioned car.
The river, a potent symbol is mentioned early and often, and appears and reappears at nodal points in the story. However, it is ghostly and blurred–more like the River Acheron, for which the ancient Greek souls needed a guide to cross into Hades, than a physical (and wet) presence.
There is one moment when the land appears fully with scent, color, and sensation–the horrific and darkly funny burial scene. Two characters wrestle a bloody corpse into the ground and are marked with its gore and mud. The only time that a human being becomes one with the land is when that character–one of the more humane ones–must be literally forced into it, dead.
What is brilliant about Johnson’s choice is how he continues the genre’s movement away from the idyllic frontier of early westerns, and the recent troubled and tragic landscapes of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.
His land is not the End All and Be All. It is not the snake that troubled Eden. His is a land that is spent and used, forgotten and kicked aside. It is a vacuum of moral indifference and blighted progress. And like the landscape in all good Westerns, it is code to what we are as human beings–what we came from, what we are, and what we desire to be. Ouch.
…OK, I can’t end like that! That realization won’t keep me from rereading Nobody Move. It’s dark and fast-paced and noir to the core. And you get a kind of a riding-off-into=the-sunset bit, except without the sunset.
*I am indebted to Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.