Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux - April 2009
    ISBN: 978-0-374-22290-1, 208 pages, $23 (hardcover)
How to Sell by Clancy Martin
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux - May 2009
    ISBN: 978-0-374-17335-7, 304 pages, $24 (hardcover)

Denis Johnson won a National Book Award for Tree of Smoke, a sweeping 600-page Vietnam War epic that he worked on for a decade until its publication in 2007. In his new novel, Nobody Move, Johnson tries his luck at a new hand, portraying slick gambler Jimmy Luntz.

Originally published as a four-part serial in Playboy last summer, this short noir follows Jimmy as he is chased around California by his debtors (he is several thousand dollars in the red), particularly a lean and mean enforcer by the name of Gambol. Gambol captures Jimmy, but Jimmy gets lucky (again) and escapes, Gambol's stuffed wallet now in his own pocket. Jimmy meets Anita Desilvera, plotting revenge against her husband's misdeeds with $2.3 million along for the ride, and the two set off together, a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde. With so many lowlifes looking for them, it will be a wonder if the two escape with their fortunes (and lives) intact.

Those who have read Tree of Smoke will not be disappointed by Nobody Move; despite the change in genre and the reversal in subject matter, Johnson's storytelling and lyricism remain. In this case, they just happen in a shorter length of pages. There is still room for Johnson's zingers, and his dialogue is sharp and sardonically funny. When Anita asks Jimmy, "Do you always talk about people like they're invisible?" Jimmy answers, "Usually just women."

The characters in Nobody Move realized that their lives have nothing to offer to them, and yet they keep on living anyway. Johnson loves these down-in-the-dumps types, giving them space to be their pitiful selves without making them seem too trite or overdone. He is a master of his art, able to pack as much of a punch in 200 pages as he does in 600. Johnson makes no pretense of what Nobody Move is supposed to be: a fast noir read about bleak characters leading their equally bleak and meaningless existences. The book doesn't measure in heft the way Johnson's other novels have, but its brevity still makes for a satisfying read.

The first great rule of writing is to write what you know. Clancy Martin, a former jewelry con man, has learned to follow these guidelines. Now Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Martin has parlayed his early experiences in the jewelry business into a Pushcart Prize (for 2007's “The Best Jeweler”) and into his first novel, How to Sell.

The book opens in 1987 with Bobby Clark, an idealistic Canadian teenager, stuck at home with a single mother and an overbearing girlfriend, Wendy. What can he do to escape this stifling existence? He heads to Texas, where his brother, Jim, is a fine jewelry salesman. In no time, Jim and his girlfriend, Lisa, are showing Bobby the ins and outs of the business, complete with "Faux-lexes," bait-and-switch deals, and plenty of cocaine; after all, it is the 80s.

It does not take Bobby long to realize that the American dream in his head and the one in Fort Worth under Jim's tutelage are polar opposites. But throughout all the scams, Bobby's voice remains unexpectedly honest and still idealistic—a contrast to the stealing and the scheming that are taking place all around him. He retains his youthful naïveté despite watching the stereotypical excesses of drugs and sex the 1980s were known for.

Martin's narration makes this dark novel work because he has injected into it so much humor. In the tradition of writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Hunter S. Thompson, Martin recognizes that people do bad things, bad things happen to good people, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Martin shares with these authors the ability to find humor in the grotesque and tasteless.

How to Sell is not a heavy read, nor does it try to be. It is fast, engrossing, and funny—three things preferred in summer reading. To quote Bobby's brother, Jim, "a salesman is an artist." Martin is indeed both, delivering a story of cheating and lying in a well-thought out and hilarious package.