No Money in My Pocket

Denis nobodyI’ve never been a gambler.  Even when I lived in California, basically a four-hour stone’s throw from Vegas, gambling has never appealed to me.  Maybe because I’ve never had much money to throw away, or maybe because I never felt like I was so lacking something that it would necessitate that kind of risk.  It also probably helps that I’m not much of a risk-taker in general, nor do I have an addictive personality.  The thought of throwing money away in the hope of winning more money has never made a lot of sense to me when I could just as easily take the money I have to the record store.

(Also a factor: social anxiety that generally prevents me from dealing with strangers, such as card dealers [is that what they’re called?] and other gamblers.)

There are a few minor exceptions.  Slots in Vegas with Wife of Monty (then-Girlfriend of Monty) and again more recently in New Orleans.  And my biggest score: On a ferry across the English Channel the summer after I graduated from high school, I inserted a £1 coin in a slot machine and miraculously scored a £50 return.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a gambler.  I decided at age 18 to quit while I was ahead.

Despite (or actually, maybe because of) this aversion to risk-taking I’ve always been drawn to stories of gamblers.  Not necessarily literal gamblers (Rounders was good and all, but I didn’t need to see it a second time), but stories about those who take the risks I don’t. If it’s a movie about a con swearing to do one more big job before he quits the life forever, I’m in.  Or if it’s a movie that involves assembling a team for a heist and every member of the team has a specialty, that’s my jam.  I could watch Steven Soderbergh’s version of Ocean’s Eleven until my eyes bleed, and the same holds true of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, even though the risks involved in those two stories are very, very different.

It’s appropriate that I mention the Coen Brothers, because Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move resembles nothing so much as a Coen Brothers script waiting to be filmed.  It is, admittedly, a minor work from Johnson, the author who gave us the masterful, elegiac, National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke.  Nobody Move, an experiment in noir fiction, reads like a goofabout, a post-Tree of Smoke palate cleanser before moving on to bigger and better things.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable.  It’s immensely enjoyable, a breezy, fast-paced read about double- and triple-crosses, scams and cons, tough guys and no-nonsense broads, and characters described in beautifully succinct language that communicates volumes: “He wasn’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the moment but undoubtedly possessed several.”

The plot is almost beside the point.  Suffice to say it involves several unlikable people (including Luntz, a guy who sings in a barbershop quartet, and Juarez, a gangster who has a thing for cooking and eating his victims’ testicles) trying to con each other out of $2.3 million.  There’s also Anita, Luntz’s accidental companion and the catalyst for the book’s scam; Gambol, Juarez’s right-hand-assassin and fellow gonad afficionado; Mary, a Gulf War veteran who stitches people up for the bad guys; and a hat-wearing guy known only as the Tall Man (who’s actually only 5’8″).  But they’re all risk-takers, gamblers, to one degree or another – from Luntz, who kicks the story into motion by shooting Gambol in the leg, to Anita, who’s trying to double-cross her ex-husband and a corrupt judge, to Juarez, who makes his living by exploiting the misfortunes of others.  None of them are nice, but I often find that “not nice” is more fun.

But really, the joy of this book is the joy Johnson clearly takes in playing with tough-guy tropes.  You come for the mystery, but you stay for hard-boiled exchanges like this one between Luntz and Anita:

‘What’s on TV?’ he said. ‘I usually watch in the daytime.’

‘No. Really?’

‘I get up late and just stay in bed and burn the daylight down.’

‘A night person.’

‘That’s right, yeah. I blend in better that way.’

‘Not the outdoor type.’

‘My idea of a health trip is switching to menthols and getting a tan,’ he said. ‘I don’t like push-ups, sit-ups, ex cetera. Et cetera, I mean.’ He’d been corrected in this several times, but always forgot.

‘You’re cute enough,’ she said, ‘but you got a sissy body.’

‘Didn’t you know that?’

‘What.’

‘That it’s et cetera, not ex cetera.’

‘Yeah, man, I did.  I just didn’t feel like embarrassing you,’ she said, and headed for the bathroom.

When she came out he told her, ‘I watched you going to the shower and I almost thought I could break down crying.’

‘Oh,’ she said.

‘Come here.’ She sat beside him, both of them naked, and he kissed her, and the temperature felt better. ‘I’d like to try it sober.’

‘Can we wait till after breakfast, when I’m not hung over?’

‘Sure. Let’s go downstairs. What are we having?’

‘Beer.’

Like Vonnegut’s writing, this simple, unadorned prose is remarkably difficult to pull off – it may be easy to fake, but it’s so, so hard to stick the landing.  Johnson makes it look easy, though, even if I suppose the book as a whole is kinda sorta just aping Elmore Leonard.  It’s not going to change your life, but it might brighten your day.  I’ll take it.

*****

Current listening:

Foo one

Foo Fighters – One by One (2002)

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