The Hammer and the Paint Brush

I had read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son when it came out in paperback, 1993. I had read Tree of Smoke, which won a Nat’l Book Award in 2007. That, I didn’t like so much, but after Johnson died, in May, I decided to read the earlier one again. If you can recommend another book of Johnson’s to someone who didn’t like Smoke but did like Jesus, I am buying.

There are 11 stories, eight-to-23 (under 300-word) pages. Each is narrated by a never-named “I.” He is 20-to-25. He moves through Texas, Kansas City, Iowa, Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix. He enjoys hash, pills, heroin, pharmaceutical opium, Taiwanese pot, psychedelic mushrooms. He enters AA, NA, detox. His women may be dwarfs or junkies or half-paralyzed by encephalitis. He may or may not be the same person, (It does not matter.) At least in two stories, he has the same nickname, which is “Fuckface.” He has little backstory. He just is in a way that reinforces the blankness of the world he inhabits. His past has “been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere.”

It is a world of fatal car crashes and wives firing pistols at husbands or stabbing them in the eye with hunting knives. It takes place in motels whose “maids spat out their chaw in the shower stalls” and apartments where floors bare designs “like the chalk outlines of victims.” The customers in its bars – the Vine, Pig Alley – “all seem to have escaped from some place” and act as if “whatever (they) did to one another would be washed away by liquor or explained away by sad songs…” Within these people “important connections had been burned through… (as if ) a hot soldering iron” had been run through their brains. They have been “found innocent for ridiculous reasons.” They wait “patiently for somebody to destroy them” or die because no one pays sufficient attention to save them. They are people whose “deformities… made God look like a senseless maniac.” They are “just like us, but unluckier.” They leave “I” filled with “a sweet pity(and)… drunk with sadness (he) couldn’t get enough of…”

The great Philadelphia Daily News sports writer Jack McKinney wrote of two Cuban boxers, new to the mid-‘60s scene, that one (Luis Rodriguez) wielded his left hand like a paintbrush and the other (Florentino Fernandez) like a mallet. Writers can fire words like boxers’ fists, and Johnson’s combinations, often unorthodox, often landing from oblique angles, can both hammer and brush. Here, “I” honors a bartender who poured hearty doubles. “I will never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away, leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” The “extension cord” lands like a gut punch, between protective elbows. The linkage to the missed bus thumbs the eye. The breadth and variety of the awaiting, inevitable pain extinguishes sentiment with bitter, bone-cracking truth.

Johnson strokes delicately too. “We all believed we were tragic and so on,” he writes. “I was taking a new approach to life…. That kind of thing.” Anyone can plunk down tragedy and life. It takes an artist to append “and so on” and “kind of thing.” These are not lazy excesses that escaped a re-write’s erasure. They are deliberately placed, like jabs to keep a foe unbalanced, to deflect pursuit, to bleed  the bull and advance the ultimate argument. All is vague. All is uncertain. Even judgment. Even resolution.

Few authors (and readers) have contested with as many layers of darkness as Johnson. Books like Jesus, when you are young, appeal by dangling a crown earned by victories over foes beyond any you have known. It looks like excitement. It looks like courage. When you are old, when you know too many who did not go the distance, the horror and the pity stick and pound you. Then artistry alone can hold.