Just the Worst of Times: Denis Johnson Goes Iambic

A teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop once asked his student Denis Johnson what he’d been reading in his spare time. “I only ever read one book,” he responded, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Slackers love Denis Johnson and his cast of degenerates, so this Spicoli-style answer feels appropriate in tone. It’s also spot-on in content, since Volcano anticipates the author’s central theme. Like Lowry’s alcoholic protagonist, Mr. Johnson’s books circle around the idea that there is theological, extra-biblical knowledge to be gained from the embrace of chaos and waste. Take Bill Houston from Mr. Johnson’s first novel, Angels, who turns his lighter upside down and says, “The gas wants to go up, but then it has to go down before it can go up.” The lighter explodes in his hand, which punctuates an aside that feels right out of Lowry’s Gnostic book. Not to say that anyone has ever accused Denis Johnson of playing by someone else’s rules.

So what to make of Johnson’s latest book, Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse (FSG, 240 pp., $20)? The fact that anyone would write in iambic pentameter these days is pretty odd, but it’s an especially strange feat for Denis Johnson, whose characters tend to be outcasts and losers, the last kind of people to be associated with stylized language, at least in this century. It’s as if William Faulkner decided to knock out a novel in the style of P.G. Wodehouse. The weirdness of the style is inescapable, but besides demonstrating that Mr. Johnson is capable of writing in any format—having already proven himself adept at the poem, short story, novella, prose play, post-Graham Greene spy novel, detective novel parody and reported magazine piece—the iambic pentameter is very much a part of what makes these plays great.

Its first benefit for the plays is superficial—both are structured like countdowns, causing the pace of the lines to feel like a metronome or a heartbeat. Soul of a Whore concerns a sham preacher, Bill Jenks, who upon his release from prison discovers he actually does have the power to banish demons from the bodies they inhabit; he’s prophesied to raise the dead, which we naturally assume will happen before the play is over. Purvis tells the story of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent credited with nabbing John Dillinger, and is told in reverse chronology, beginning with a scene where Lyndon Johnson, in his underwear, plays gin rummy with J. Edgar Hoover, Purvis not on stage and long dead. Both the plays are a little out there, topic-wise, but the verse creates a suspension of disbelief for plots that would otherwise seem ridiculous. People say “O” where they mean “Oh,” and brush away a criminal’s promise as “a villain’s oath,” which means that, as with Shakespeare, there will be spirits, and there will be larger-than-life historical figures, and you will not question it.

Mr. Johnson is a skilled mythmaker—the colonel in his Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke at times outshines Brando’s Kurtz—and the format leaves him free to create giants. Purvis is a jut-jawed G-man whose quest for decency is a joke, and Dillinger is a true American Christ—all swagger, ambition and endowment. This all works out especially well for Hoover, who’s already seen stellar treatment in fiction—Don DeLillo’s Underworld and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid come to mind—but might be better suited to iambic pentameter than any other figure in American history. “Our enemies are ideologies,” he tells Clyde Tolson, while wearing a kimono. “And we must smash the vessels that purvey them.” “Don’t you see that we shall minister for gods/that we create?” he says, explaining the 20th century to Purvis. Later in that scene he dances to what the script calls “sexual, melting jazz.”

And will you believe me when I tell you there is kindness in their hearts? Baby Face Nelson brings Dillinger a poignant flower at one point and, all shot up by the side of the road, Pretty Boy Floyd soliloquizes as Purvis and a cop stand by, remembering his blind uncle eating ice cream: “I watched him like a blind boy who could see/the word for doing things that way is ‘young.’/The word for that is ‘young, when you were nine.’/It makes me kind of glad that I remember/It makes me wish you wouldn’t kill me boys.”

Mr. Johnson can write tight, and he can write loose, but here the sentences are coiled springs, yet another benefit to the format, which allows him to bring all his poetic talents to the fore. “Leave me to the world of things and men,” hisses a demon in Soul of a Whore. You’d almost hate to see these plays performed because there’s too much to take in on any given line. Here’s a grisly scene painted in just a few sentences, when the preacher Jenks berates a man who says he had to kill two people because a hold-up went bad in Ellersberg. “It’s Ellersberg, a crossroads with a store,” Jenks says, not buying it. “A gasoline pump, and a Coke machine./It’s like a scene from 1957./ Thing still dispenses Yoo-Hoo for a dime.”

Soul of a Whore examines the spaces shared by demon and savior, flock and preacher, preacher and whore (Jenks: “Announcement!—I have never read the Bible”), executioner and executed, Jesus and the wretched. This is mostly tied up in the plot, whose broad outlines might be guessed from some of those dichotomies. There are some diversions and perhaps too many characters, though despite its supernatural elements the play is less experimental than Purvis, which makes the verse stand out that much more. We’re dealing with normal people, with Southern accents no less, who seem to rebel against the linguistic order imposed on them by slipping out of their roles and labels or, to the same effect, showing blind dedication to them. An executioner executes someone during a hostage situation that threatens to kill them all anyway, and a character named H.T., as in “hostage taker,” just can’t help taking hostages, even in places like Ellersberg. Birds gotta fly.

The linguistic rebellion is not only outside the dialogue. Jenks is both shaman and showman, in person and in conversation, thanks to the accents. “Huntsville was named after Huntsville,” a character explains at one point, meaning the Texas one, then the Alabama one. One character is called Masha, when in fact her name is “Marsha” (at first Jenks thinks she’s Russian, though she insists she’s from Texas: “Where’d you get the Masha from? Odessa?”). Someone is described as committing “vehicular infanticide” and Jenks shudders at the words: “Sometimes can’t you feel the English tongue/Kind of licking around inside your stomach?” You can fault Soul of a Whore for some bizarre tonal shifts, including a few pretty good but ill-timed jokes set in an execution chamber, but you can’t fault the coherence of its overall vision, and the sense that what we’re viewing is the gritty life of Mr. Johnson’s novels siphoned through some antiquated medium. At one point, out of nowhere, a radio turns on and a voice says, “Insects are often the only witnesses/to a crime.” That would be the characters, and us, in our inability to process the penumbras of existence.

These plays, in their archaic and formal structure, allow Mr. Johnson to directly address his skepticism about the supposed power of language, something that seems to run through his other works in more subtle ways. There’s his general terseness, which he has in common with his Iowa drinking buddy, Raymond Carver, though if Carver’s sparsity is symptomatic of nihilism (see “Tell the Women We’re Going”), Mr. Johnson’s seems to imply that there’s something more beneath the surface.

You can see it in little things, like the way Wayne, the tragic figure in the story “Work,” is never described physically. “What can be said about those fields?” the narrator asks in “Dundun.” All he sees are cows, “smelling one another’s butts,” seemingly oblivious, for the moment, to the man dying in his car. His presentation of an English language unworthy of us can be conceptual at times. There’s the idea of the a CIA agent’s brain distilled uselessly onto note cards in Tree of Smoke, and then his confounding plan to plant false intel (which is nothing but words) revealed by someone who finds a bafflingly complex manifesto that raises more questions than it answers. “There’s really only one question,” says the bumbling detective Lenny English in Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. “Did God really kill himself?” Well, yes, but it sounds stupid if you put it that way.


Just the Worst of Times: Denis Johnson Goes Iambic