By Denis Johnson
I had two doubles and immediately it was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now finally awake.
I had seen the 1999 film adaptation but can’t say I really remember it. When a pile of copies were discounted at the very cool Dog Eared Books in San Francisco, I thought why the hell not? And it was a breezy read made up of chronologically nonlinear, interconnected stories told from the perspective of FH (guess what it stands for), a rather muddled and detached individual due to his being a recovering/relapsing heroin junkie.
This is why drug addict stories can be so oft-putting. A character in a foggy drug haze is like an indulgent excuse to write elliptical narratives full of obliquely descriptive prose. Yet Johnson seems aware of this tendency and for the most part, he strikes a nice balance in his Pacific Northwest indie version of a bildungsroman.
All in all, they were still kind of vaguely boring stories randomly punctuated by bizarre occurrences and thoughtful, sometimes brilliant, prose. The kind of writing that tends to impress and/or inspire college students. Don’t get me wrong, there were some memorable moments, such as when FH becomes obsessed with spying on a Mennonite couple at their home after catching the wife singing in the shower through an open window. I enjoyed the stories well enough, but the writing is the kind that leaves an impression on you, rather than any kind of significant impact.
One thing I will give Johnson credit for is how he describes remarkable events - hilarious or tragic - witnessed by FH at the hospital. It wouldn’t be surprising if the author had also worked as a hospital orderly himself.
One time a man arrived at the emergency ward with a hunting knife stuck in his eye - it was buried to the hilt! - courtesy of his wife. The whole incident – arrival, diagnosis, cure - was described in less than four pages but was worth possibly all the anecdotes combined in Vincent Lam’s novel Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures.
Both books are like collections of well-observed moments and vignettes that sometimes work but are also sometimes uneven in their delivery. At least when Johson writes from the perspective of a mentally unstable person, it rings truer since you get the sense that he’s really been lost in those deep dark places before.
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.