Craft Essay: A Minimal High–Denis Johnson Under the Influence

imagesAnyone who has taken a creative writing workshop in college has experienced the dreaded acid trip story. Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to write a good drug story, one ambitious student always takes on the challenge. The result is always the same: overwritten, cerebral experiences, one right after the next. Everything was swirling around me. I saw color and I reached out and tried to grab it. Each time I moved my hand over it, the color changed. I opened my mouth and realized I was tasting the music, tasting each note. Why this type of writing is unsuccessful is obvious: it’s overly expository, it’s not grounded in concrete images that the reader can connect with, and probably worst of all these crimes, no one cares about the person tasting music. Thus, another acid trip story crashes and burns. But how does one write successfully about the experience of being on drugs?

In Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson uses a different strategy than our Creative Writing 101 student. Rather than focusing on cerebral descriptions and out-of-body sensations, the author draws on insights from many of the narrator’s experiences to create a composite of dissonance. To be fair, writing about an acid trip or two is very different from writing about being addicted to drugs.  Nonetheless, our Creative Writing 101 student would benefit from reading this work, and would likely be able to write a much better acid-trip story afterward.  Johnson uses a combination of minimal exposition, contrasting images, philosophical ponderings, and descriptions of humiliating experiences to create the contradictory world of drug-addiction.

In the first short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Johnson introduces us to the narrator who we only get to know as “Fuckhead.” The reader is immediately drawn into Fuckhead’s drug-induced state. “The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name.” Along with the images that ground the reader in a physical experience rather than a cerebral one, Johnson uses contrasting word combinations such as “zoomed pitifully” to illustrate Fuckhead’s dissonance–some parts of the body feel good, others bad, others numb. One moment, there is euphoria, the next there is despair. Johnson depicts this with contrasting word pairings and contrasting sensations rather than the physically disconnected, cerebral language of our creative writing 101 student.

Johnson also shows the volatile and erratic mindstate of a person on drugs by pairing minimal, concrete description with the despair the narrator is feeling. “And I piled my sleeping bag against the left-hand door and slept across it, not caring whether I lived or died. ” The narrator blandly admits to his ambivalence about death as he adjusts his sleeping bag. The story ends in a gory car crash, the narrator feeling that “in this short while I had gone from being the president of this tragedy to being a faceless onlooker at a gory wreck.” Almost all of the imagery and description Johnson uses in the story is crafted with a strong sense of contrast, and sadness and despair are consistently part of the equation. The narrator is at times “relieved and tearful”; in “Out on Bail” the narrator describes the prosecution of Jack Hotel, a drug dealer, as “a sad, exhilarating occasion.” Johnson uses these contrasts to illustrate highs and lows and the quiet but constant hum of Fuckhead’s desperation.

The narrator’s relationships are also imbued with this sense of contrasting highs and lows. In the story “Work” Fuckhead tells the reader “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the John, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Because Johnson’s exposition is so full of vivid and contrasting imagery, it is barely noticeable as such. It also perfectly conveys to the reader the dissonant relationship the narrator had with this woman. On the one hand, she is the most beautiful woman he has ever known, yet some of their activities like crying, puking, and shooting up in the john are quite ugly. At the same time, through all of this ugliness, they “carried one another up to heaven.”

Some of the dissonance is established through a combination of drugged-up, philosophical ponderings and humiliating imagery. In “Car Crashes While Hitchhiking” Fuckhead is left with a rather gloomy insight at the end of the story. “I looked down on the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Johnson uses this passage to illustrate the irony of a person who cares so little about life, yet desperately wants to know what another person’s dreams are. By showing the reader these occasional flashes of insight, Johnson conveys Fuckhead’s strong desire, yet inability, to connect with other humans.

In “Two Men” Fuckhead tells the reader “I was carrying a gun, but it wasn’t as if I would actually have used it. It was so cheap, I was sure it would explode in my hands if I ever pulled the trigger. So it could only add to my humiliation.” In the same story, Fuckhead admits to being afraid of an infant. “I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.” Fear, anxiety, wanting to be liked, yet not caring much to live are themes that recur in the imagery and exposition. These, more than those fleeting moments of cerebral pleasure, like tasting music, are what define a drug-addict’s experience. Furthermore, these are the things that we, as fellow human beings, tend to care about.

Johnson also uses the recurring setting of The Vine to express the comfort Fuckhead seems to find in depressing, humiliating environments. “I looked down the length of The Vine. It was a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere. The people all seemed to have escaped from someplace–I saw plastic hospital name bracelets on several wrists. They were trying to pay for their drinks with counterfeit money they’d made themselves, in Xerox machines” (“Two Men”). Contrasting images abound in this passage. A train car that wasn’t going anywhere. People who seemed to have escaped from somewhere, yet were imprisoned by The Vine. Money made on a Xerox machine will obviously not trick anyone, yet the people in The Vine try to use it to pay for their drinks out of desperation. Fuckhead tells the reader “Some of the most terrible things that had happened to me in my life had happened in here. But like the others I kept coming back” (“Two Men”).

“Beverly Home,” the final story in the collection, is the only story we read in which Fuckhead is not on drugs. Although the reader might expect the contrasting imagery and dissonance to at least taper off, it is stronger than ever. Johnson’s great success in this chapter is that he shows that for someone like Fuckhead, life off drugs can be even more contradictory, bizarre, and dissonant than life on drugs. Rather than stating that in any explicit way, Johnson heightens his use of contrasting images and humiliating experiences in this chapter. Fuckhead finds comfort in going to a plant nursery during his lunch break, a place which exudes a “feeling of cool dead sex.” Fuckhead tells us that he “was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that.” And although the narrator has a job now, that job in which he works with old, demented, paralyzed, and sometimes deformed people “makes God look like a senseless maniac.” Fuckhead becomes fixated on a Mennonite woman, and makes a daily routine of spying on her. As he watches her toweling off after a shower, he admits “I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might do something like that if I were wearing a mask.” Johnson continues to depict the narrator’s ambivalence as he watches the woman. “I was sick of myself and full of joy.”

The description of an AA meeting is eerily similar to the description of The Vine. “Thursday nights I usually went to an AA meeting in an Episcopal church’s basement. We sat around collapsible tables looking very much like people stuck in a swamp—slapping at invisible things, shifting, squirming, scratching, rubbing the flesh of our arms and our necks.” Rather than being in a train car that is going nowhere, these people are stuck in a swamp. Both descriptions hint at the transient nature of these locations. Trains are constantly moving from place to place, and collapsible tables indicate a sense of impermanence. What is also consistent in both images is the sense of alienation that Fuckhead feels.

Johnson brings these feelings of alienation to a climax when Fuckhead is trying to spy on the Mennonite woman and her husband having sex. When they close the curtains and only allow him “two inches of crack at the curtain’s edge” the narrator feels “ abandoned—cast out of the fold. I was ready to break the glass with a rock.”

Nevertheless, at the end of the story, Fuckhead informs the reader that despite all the chaos, “this was all in all a happy time for me.” He confesses at the very end of the collection “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Denis Johnson crafts Fuckhead’s drug experience with minimal exposition, contrasting images and feelings, and the occasional philosophical pondering. He grounds the narrator’s sense of despair in concrete images. He expresses Fuckhead’s sense of dissonance through a series of humiliating and alienating experiences. The downfall of other drug writing, namely cerebral, detached description, and at times glorification of the experience or lifestyle is absent from Johnson’s prose. This is an unromantic, tragic, and violent story about a guy named Fuckhead who, for most of the story, believes that life can really only ever be one step away from either death, humiliation, or that fleeting high. Johnson’s ability to re-create the experience of being on drugs allows the reader to watch Fuckhead ride in the train that isn’t going anywhere, wallow in the swamp at a collapsible table, and walk away at the end with a shaky sense of slowly, but surely rejoining the human race.

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2009. Kindle file.

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