Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Lowlife Shuffle - #25

STORY: "Two Men" by Denis Johnson

FROM: JESUS' SON (Picador, 1992)

ALSO FROM: THE NEW YORKER FICTION PODCAST – Scroll down to "Salvatore Scibona reads Denis Johnson"

BASICALLY: A cowardly man careens from place to place through the night with his friends. The "first man" is a drunk who won't get out of their car. The "second man" burned the narrator on a drug deal awhile back. Unsympathetic people doing the incomprehensible - made electric by Johnson's prose and structure.

As any faithful reader of my blog (Hi Mom!) will no doubt remember, it's taken me a while to become someone who can honestly say they like The New Yorker. And yet my former position as scoffer and dismisser is looking more and more untenable, because here is this dark, beautiful short story by Denis Johnson that was published there in 1988. Since I was still in my denim-skirts-LipSmackers-pewter-dragons phase at that point, I don't think I can somehow imagine that The New Yorker has only begun to accommodate my tastes in the last few years... no, I must accept the fact that they publish some iconic fiction that I was, at a certain point, too green and short-attention-spanned to appreciate, and that I have carried that prejudice with me for far too long.

Not that I'll be giving up my robot stories and fairy tales any time soon. Variety, people! Have we learned nothing here?

Yet another reason to love The New Yorker is their Fiction Podcast. Authors pick a story published by someone else in the magazine, and then they read it and discuss it with the Fiction Editor. Simple concept, profoundly interesting results.

Hearing a story can change it. Can open it up in a new way. The same words are processed by the same language mechanism in the brain, yet are altered just by entering through a separate portal. I have to admit that when I first read "Two Men," it didn't strike me as anything special. I completely love Johnson's story from the same book called "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" (it haunted me so strongly I had to pick it up and read it again the very next day, just to cope), but "Two Men" kind of slid right by. Yet to hear author Salvatore Scibona read it was a completely different experience. The voice of this unstable man at the story's center comes alive in Scibona's voice, and I am there, in that night, trying to make sense of a series of unconnected events that are somehow unspeakably connected in the mind of the narrator. I've listened three times, now, and I have to say that my appreciation of "Two Men" gets deeper every time. (And the discussion that takes place after the story is not to be missed.)

There's something so impossible about trying to write from a truly unhinged point of view. Someone sane enough to get by in the regular world and not get locked up (much), but still totally crazy, capable of an awfulness and disconnection not normal. Johnson's narrator is neither quirky nor wholly, relentlessly bad. Instead, he just seems like a really fucked-up guy. The kind of guy everyone's run into at a party, or known through friends, or dated. This guy is out there, living his miserable life; I can completely believe that.

The narrative of this guy is full of telling sentences whose impact seem to escape him. At the beginning, for example, he tells us 

I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn't yet come to light, and so we kept on in one another's company, going to bars and having conversations. Generally one of these false coalitions died after a day or a day and a half, but this one had lasted more than a year.
Later, when the three friends are trying to dump the drunk guy off at his house, but a woman inside won't open the door, this: 
All of her was invisible except the shadow of her hand on the curtain's border. "If you don't take him off our street I'm calling the police." I was so flooded with yearning I thought it would drown me. Her voice broke off and floated down.
It's as though this person has some kind of deep understanding, an insight into his own condition and into beauty and into suffering—and yet his whole night, and not just the night, but his whole existence, is an utter waste. Pointless errands, meaningless diversions, unconcern for others, a profound resistance to facing the reality of the wife and young son waiting at home for him, needing him—Johnson juxtaposes the narrator's flashes of insight about his cowardly life against the bullheaded reality of his own feckless actions.

In doing so, he changes his readers' relationship to him. This individual, worthy of disdain at best, becomes someone with whom we have shared an experience—albeit one that disturbs us. It's a little confusing, when examined, which is exactly the point; in the right circumstances, with the right series of wrong choices, any of us could almost be this guy. Even if we're not him, we're implicated in what he does. It's a fantastic psychological trick that Johnson pulls off, to bring us so close to someone so fundamentally repellant.