Wednesday, October 13, 2010

LITERARY DISCUSSIONS #2: "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" by Denis Johnson

Being the second in an occasional series of online chat sessions conducted by TST founders Duke Altum and Mutt Ploughman, in which we discuss literary works and post the transcripts up to these pages to further bore our readers...


DUKE: Well all right, welcome to our second literary chat session... Duke Altum here, and joining me as always is my partner in this endeavor, Mutt Ploughman... how things going up there Mutt?

MUTT: Going well. Looking forward to this exchange tonight.

DUKE: Likewise. Tonight I've picked what I think is a great story for discussion... it's the first story in Denis Johnson's highly-praised 1992 collection, Jesus' Son. The story is called "Car Crash While Hitchhiking." Could you give us a quick synopsis Mutt?

MUTT: I can attempt it!

DUKE: The floor is yours. Once you do, I will follow with a first volley....

MUTT: It's a brief vignette almost, concerning an unnamed hitchhiker that the reader assumes is a young man, who is basically out on the highway thumbing for a ride. He ends up in a car with a family of a man, woman, and infant, which subsequently wrecks on the highway. He gets taken to the hospital after what is described at one point as a "gory" wreck, and is treated. That's the bare bones. But Johnson transforms this framework into a kind of hallucinatory, near-religious fable, nearly.

DUKE: OK, great... good summary. By the way as always, there seems to be a delay here, but we'll work with it best we can.

MUTT: That works for me.

DUKE: OK you've already sort of anticipated my first question, which is this: upon your first read, or maybe even first few reads, of this story, you're struck most of all by the horror of the violence and the nightmarish quality of the episode in general. What, if anything, makes Johnson's story more than just a vivid and "gory" tale? Is there a deeper meaning here beyond the grisly violence, which Johnson certainly intends to hold at least some shock value for the reader?

Let me know if any of my questions are too vague...

MUTT: Well I think there is. I think there is in just about everything I've read from Denis Johnson. He seems to be the kind of writer who probes the mysteries in life, the unknowable things. These stories are very much like that. I think what separates this from just a short, bloody slice of reality are the frequent hints at a kind of omniscience or, dare I say, "divinity" to the character's voice. He seems to know things a "normal" victim of an event like this wouldn't know.

DUKE: Yeah, you immediately touch on one aspect of this story which I find fascinating and curious - that is, the narrator indicates at least twice early on, a kind of foreknowledge of the events told in the story. He says "I sensed everything before it happened... I knew a certain Oldsmobile was going to stop for me." And then when he gets picked up and sees the family he thinks, "You are the ones." What do you make of that?

MUTT: It's hard to know what to make of it. Because at certain points it seems clear the narrator is some kind of divine spirit. He tells the man his wife is not dead before he could possibly know it. At one other point he speaks of how he looks down onto "the great pity of a person's life on this earth." But at other times he admits he doesn't know things. So you aren't sure of the narrator's origins or his role in the event.

[fierce t-storm here]

DUKE: Right... yet there are certainly enough hints to make the reader think of it or at least question it. And then from there I think of the title of the entire collection, which also at least hints at some kind of connection to the divine... and yet, also I suppose allows the possibility of just being human too, since if Jesus could have a son, maybe he wouldn't be Divine at all... probably reading too much there, but it is interesting. Nevertheless I think the spiritual subtext is pretty blatant throughout this story. Even the cotton balls at the end in the hospital, which is darkly hilarious by the way!!, cry out "Oh God, it hurts." But the last line, which I want to come back to, also could be read from a divine perspective... "And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you."

Storm seems appropriate, BTW, as we are dealing with Divine mysteries here...!?! Hope you don't lose power or anything...

MUTT: It certainly reads like some kind of divine pronouncement or declaration at the end. I, too, thought a lot about the title of the collection with regard to this story. On one hand, you could take it literally and imagine that the story's told from a kind of "lost son" of Jesus, wandering around, not sure of who he is or what his role in the whole miasma is. On the other hand, you can take this story, and the whole thing, as a meditation or riff on the life of a drug addict, and Johnson could just be trying to put into words the state of mind of a person deeply addled with drugs. This story could be seen either way, I think. The cotton balls point easily to the second interpretation.

DUKE: I think he's consciously playing with both ideas... clearly, on the surface, these are the "adventures" so to speak, the experiences, of a drug-addled lost soul... but then of course, they're also, every one in its own way, meditations on our condition... God looms large in just about all of them... as does guilt, shame, the possibility of redemption...

MUTT: Yeah. It's really fascinating. You know going in, if you know anything about Johnson, that he had some addiction struggles. And yet he has this interest in faith, religion, theology, and that's quite clear. And I think maybe he is trying to articulate some of what he experieced as a drug addict himself, but also possibly examine a mysterious connection or relationship between the experiences of an addict and religious experience. It's a very, very fascinating brew. And his sentences and images are incredibly powerful.

DUKE: Indeed they are... spiritual concerns are all over this story and collection, from small details to major themes. For example, it's not a huge part of the story, but I thought it was a fascinating detail that one of the guys the hitchhiker rides with, the "family man," is talking about his life and he seems to go through a whole list of reasons why he should be happy - good job, great wife and kids ("I'm gifted with love"), two cars, a boat... and yet, he's going to see a mistress, is a drunk, and is obviously another lost soul. To draw from one of your favorites, the man obviously "still hasn't found what he's looking for." So that's a minor example. But then I have a more significant one...

MUTT: Well actually I hadn't focused so much on that moment, but you're right about that too. What's the "more significant" example?

DUKE: In terms of spiritual themes/concerns... is it me or could this story also be read, at least in part, as an interesting take on the Good Samaritan parable? Because I was very struck in my second and third reads at the narrator's worry that he was going to have to act somehow, or that "something was going to be required of me," and when it isn't his relief is palpable... now I don't know about that you but that made me think powerfully of another story set on a road, when a traveler is in trouble and physically wounded, the point of which seems to be our obligation to our neighbor... the more I thought about this connection, and then the collection's title again, and the last line again, I found some really interesting parallels and connections there.

Jesus said, "Which of these acted most like his neighbor?... Go and do likewise."

MUTT: That is a fascinating idea, I never thought of that. I think that holds some water. But then there are many mixed messages and religious "hints" in here. At one point there's an almost madonna-like image, where the narrator "standing out in the night" with the baby in his arms. The notion of the Good Samaritan is not one I thought of, but I think you definitely could take it as a spin on that. A great observation.

DUKE: Thanks... his great anxiety over being called upon to act or somehow be responsible for these hurt people is what got me thinking about it. "And you expect me to help you..." By the way I just want to state in passing that there are certain lines, as you know, that just seem to burn into your brain from the first time to read them... that phrase from O'Connor, I know, is a classic example for both of us: "he went around the countryside with Jesus buried in his head like a stinger." Well there's one in this that is not quite as great as that, but has nevertheless stayed with me from the very first time I read it: "Under Midwestern clouds like great gray brains..." Somehow that image is just perfect. Invokes kind of a dark omniscience almost, hovering over the proceedings as well... or maybe that's just my own take on it.

Anyway I can see those Midwestern clouds, from our own experience, in my mind...

MUTT: I agree, he writes astounding similes and phrases, and I'm glad you brought that up because it helps me point out that in some places, like the last paragraph, almost every word can just blow me out, even in their great simplicity. But, he also has the capability to just baffle you. Consider this utterly mystifying sentence, which i type in here: "My secret was that in this short while I had gone from being the president of this tragedy to being a faceless onlooker at a gory wreck." The use of "president" completely surprises me there. So he throws a lot of curves.

DUKE: Oh man, I'm glad you brought that up, because I utterly howled at that line... I don't know why... the use of the (agreed, bizarre) term "president" struck me as hilariously funny for some reason. But you're right, it's also totally enigmatic. Why is he the head honcho of the wreck? Isn't he just a random victim like everyone else? And yet, when you couple that with his supposed foreknowledge... well, it goes back to the whole God question again.

MUTT: What is incredible about this story is Johnson's ability to confound, surprise, frighten, and touch you all in a few pages. It's really remarkable. And the other point I want to make is, the writing in these stories, all of them, is like Hemingway, extremely clipped, with no words wasted. And yet Johnson is also a very lyrical and sometimes long-winded writer elsewhere. Take Tree of Smoke or Already Dead, both of these are sprawling, almost rambling novels. So the discipline, the skill, the WORK of writing is on glorious display in this great and worthwhile book.

DUKE: Yeah, these stories are very different from both the novels (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man) and the journalism (collected in his book Seek) I've read from him. In their clipped style, I mean. These are (and again, I quote your boy Bono... don't know where that's coming from tonight... maybe a kindred spirit to Johnson somehow in his sensibilities?) "miracles of compression"... I'll tell you what though, that line you mentioned above isn't even the most enigmatic part for me. For me it's when the narrator looks down at the dying man "with great pity," but then hastens to point out that the pity is not for the fact that he's dying... it's that "he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real." that's the line I've had the most trouble wrapping my head around... any thoughts? (There's an easy one for you!!)

MUTT: No. I can't really explain that line. That's where he sounds less like a "god" or spirit and more like a drug-addled junkie. But Johnson offers you no clues.

DUKE: The only thing I can say about it is that it somehow connects to the very end, when the guy is obviously slipping into some kind of hallucinatory state again (though who's to say, really, that he hasn't been in it the whole time??), with the talking cotton balls and the rain and the gigantic ferns (in a hospital?) leaning over him... BTW, interesting side note, in the last story, "Beverly Home," the main character works in a hospital, and at one point he has this dream/hallucination in the halls that it's raining... weird connection there...

Not sure I have a point, just making observations...

MUTT: Yeah, with some of those lines, I am not even sure an explanation is possible to find, or even needed. Interesting point there though about "Beverly Home". I just want to say, for the record, the simple sentence "The forest drifted down a hill" gets me every time. It feels like the story could literally "drift" right into the novel from 15 years later (!), Tree of Smoke, and be right at home. Amazing!

DUKE: It is... this story, all of 5 or 6 pages or whatever, could sustain us all night. It reads simultaneously as a fever dream, a nightmare and kind of a parable too, all in one. We won't get to the bottom of it here tonight, I know that... and I need to hit the rack soon. But one final observation: man, that part late in the story when they observe the woman go in to consult with the doctor, and the door closes and she finds out her husband's dead, and she shrieks... that might be the most unsettling and disturbing part of the whole story for me, and that as you know is SAYING something. It's in how the narrator observes it that's so dang creepy... first of all, when she comes down the hallway "glorious, burning" - that right there is another example of Johnson's very odd, catch-you-off-guard word choices. It almost evokes angelic figures, like the seraphim (literal meaning, "the burning ones"!!). Then the capper, when he hears her scream... "It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere." For some reason that is really disturbing to me.

[Editor's note: Apologies for the abrupt ending to this session... one of us had to attend to family needs... such is the life of the husband/father/blogger, which describes both of us! But we hope you enjoyed the discussion up to this point. Thanks for reading.]

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