The Divine Intimacy

The strength of a short story may be evaluated by various quality-judgements. And, as the nomenclature suggests, short stories haven’t the time to unimpress. Fortunately, there are many routes that one may take to perform such a feat; the best-cobbled path is, however, in the same fashion as one would win the heart of a lover: intimacy. Dennis Johnson’s collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, not only deeply affects the reader, but also possesses one’s soul with a devilish intimacy nearly divine in its courtship. Some might moot artistic afflatus; some might point to the rampant drug abuse. I remain nevertheless steadfast in the opinion that these slices of someone’s literary heaven exist from a mastery of craft. It may be interpreted that Johnson completes this coaxing, in part, by three forms of ingratiation: a conversational first-person-reportage narrative style, the acknowledgment of the reader with the second-person, and the Big Kiss Goodnight ending.

Johnson’s stories feel like a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket whispering unspeakables. Whenever a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket descries us at a social gathering and, after cornering us with his broad shoulders, proceeds to delineate to us his heaviest moments, we normally fear for our lives. Though this is often the prudent choice for those in favor of a full life, the opposite is likely our response to Jesus’ Son. Johnson earns our affections with his conversational first-person-reportage narrative style. Reportage, though often considered unliterary, is pungent with authenticity, for it most closely imitates someone speaking directly to us about one’s life. The reportage style is told using the past perfect tense, “I’d been staying at the holiday Inn with my girlfriend,” in conjunction with the simple past tense, “we made love in the bed,” often also using signifying wording, such as “I remember.” Neither does it hurt to compare one’s Holiday Inn romance with a heroin-junkie to Dante’s climb to Paradiso and the Empyrean with his truest love, Beatrice: “we…carried one another to heaven.”

What do you think about the use of the second person to acknowledge the reader? I am not certain about it, but I shall leave that up to you to decide. I trust your judgement. In any case, it certainly is personal. On the wrong day in Germany, you could get the bamboo cane for it. But, in Jesus’ Son, you understand the second person to be a term of endearment, as this usage suggests: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Consider this supremely yarn-like confidence that Johnson unravels, after confiding in us some heavy exposition about the characters in his story Two Men: “My two friends and I went to get into my little green Volkswagen, and we discovered the man I started to tell you about, the first man, sleeping in the backseat.” Remember?

What is the Big Kiss Goodnight ending? It is what everyone wants. Moreover, it also seems to be a tactic of writers who enjoy finishing stories with a smooch of the angelic. In accordance with the aforementioned considerations as regards a short story’s incapacity to allow a moment’s somnolence, its ending might perhaps be its most important time to excite, and the stories in Jesus’ Son do not leave us blue. Indeed, each story ends with a bang. 

Consider this coda at the end of a story about a less than gentle man named Dundun: “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” Or this uplifting bit: “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.”

Of course, this narrator had no filial connection with the barmaid about whom he is reporting, but that has never been a qualification when considering if one has been another’s mother. 

Butt: It Ain’t Enough

Laughter is evoked through comedy, comedy through surprise, and surprise through the depiction of humorous juxtapositions. Kingsley Amis’s 1955 novel That Uncertain Feeling features John Lewis, a man whose adulterous escapade with Mrs. Elizabeth Gruffyd-Williams teaches him profound existential lessons on lust, love, and life. Butt: Amis knew, in order to get his readers smiling, this was not enough. Merely to describe how a penurious twenty-six-year-old married librarian with moth-eaten clothing, no money for groceries, and an indefatigable toddler at home might betray some interest in a wealthy, beautiful woman’s sudden and boisterous advances would be obvious. Amis wrote comedy, and comedy relies on surprise. Therefore, in the pursuit of great comedy, Amis chose to impose a source of humor upon Lewis’s 1st-person narration by juxtaposing the loose, slang-ridden recalcitrance of a Breezy narration style against the euphemistically formal understated narrative style, as well as scenes of literary solemnity against irreverent slapstick. 

John Lewis is a young, disgruntled proletarian with militant feelings towards the wealthy Bourgeoise; he is also a scholar of Welsh literature and something of a pedant; he could be construed as what some people refer to today as a broke-ass snob. Therefore, it only makes sense that Lewis’s language be so interestingly humorous, carrying with it both the Holden Caufield-esque eye-spitting of the Breezy narration style that bobbysoxers and undergraduates alike seem to champion and enjoy, and the wit-riddled irony of an understated, Dickensian-esque narration style favored by those with chronic dyspepsia. 

Strunk and White told us never to affect a “breezy manner,” as it is “often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.” A breezy manner is a kind of “alumni magazine” talk that chafes the more sensitive lexophiles amongst us. Consider three-hundred pages of the following: “Well, guys, here I am again dishing the dirt about your disorderly classmates, after pa$$ing a weekend in the Big Apple…” A difficult task, to be sure. 

Although Mr. Strunk and Mr. White have doubtlessly slugged this unbearable archetype of the lexical narcissist on the chin, the gentlemen did not malign the use of a breezy manner in judicious conjunction with a more formal, understated one. And it was this concoction Amis thought worthy of two hundred and fifty-four pages.

We begin with the breezy whenever Lewis abbreviates linoleum floor as “Lino,” whilst further describing the floors of the library by stating that “the place was starting to empty, thank God.” An onslaught of informality: the library becomes an ambiguous pejorative noun, the imperfect past tense is employed, and the idea is punctuated by thanking the main Judeo-Christian deity for Lewis’s triumph of Sloth. This narration, however, is juxtaposed but only a few sentences later with a creative euphemism as regards Lewis’s inspection of a young woman’s lower musculature: “Distraction was at hand: a female student from the local University College crossed my path some yards ahead and my glance dropped involuntarily to her legs” (10). Although better understatements have occurred in literature, this usage is attractively subtle in the way it follows Lewis’s cocksure breeziness with the formal admission that his eyes were not voluntarily under his control, that, in some way, he suffers tyranny. This continues throughout the novel: a man experiencing valid emotion and crying is “turn(ing) liquid eyes on [Lewis],” which is followed by lengthy, elaborate similes and metaphors anent the uncertain feeling of following another man’s wife’s offering her body up to his discretion: “We moved together towards the entrance-hall. I felt I was swinging in an absurdly unnatural way, like a schoolboy on stage for the first time in his life. Did I always swing my arms as if I were carrying a pair of empty buckets? Surely not. And what did I suppose I was going to say next?” Humorous language, Amis knew, is only half the battle; therefore, he also knew that, to write a humorous novel, one must also depict humorous scenes.

It is funny to watch other people suffer. The Germans, which recent history would suggest to be particularly fond of this notion, have a word for it called Schadenfreude, which most literally translates to disappointment-joy. A similar logic applies to Amis’s juxtaposition of a solemn, unironic narrative against humorous relief. This heightens the humor, as a narrative saturated in only the sugary treacle of the cutely ironic becomes cloying and indeed a real bellyache to read. This release from solemnity to comedy produces a kind of joy in the reader, suggesting that even the dark times are never without something to smile about. 

Consider the case of Lewis’s suspicions that his wife and a failed playwright named Probert are having an affair: “I looked around for Jean. Probert was talking hard to her, with Elizabeth listening rather attentively. She caught my glance and mouthed some phrase at me, pointing to Probert. No thanks, I thought; whatever it is, no thanks. I smiled and waved to her, then hurried out.” Now consider the sentence immediately thereafter: “it was wonderful in the lavatory.” His wife’s flirting with an unattractive literary imposter turns into supreme bathroom bliss.

Further consider Lewis’s leading of his mistress down a poorly lit alleyway, in which “[he] stumble(s) on something soft, a bundle of washing or corpse, and warned her about it,” whereupon Mrs. Davies, a nettlesome neighbor, calls into the darkness, inquiring into whether it might be her husband or son walking that same alley. Lewis continues the narrative: “ignoring this, I began climbing the stairs…” Examples of this quick shift from the solemn to the humorous may be gleaned from about every single page in the novel. 

Yet, this formula, and it is indeed a kind of formula, somehow never gets old, never flags, never tires. This is due to its contrivance of truly surprising juxtapositions; if it is truly surprising and truly a juxtaposition, by definition, it will work every single time. Recall the last time someone said to you that they just did not feel like laughing that day. That person was a fool. Laughter is not a choice. It is a visceral reaction, a reaction caused by surprise, and surprise is enough.