In 1999, a small-scale, bittersweet film called Jesus’ Son blew through London to very little fanfare. It was a lo-fi indie film with a heart the size of Texas, a couple of yet-to be-discovered actors (Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton) in the main roles, and one or two heavyweights in the supporting parts (Holly Hunter and Dennis Hopper). The director, a relatively unknown Canadian named Alison Maclean, never went on to make another feature film as ambitious as Jesus’ Son, and now directs episodes of Canadian TV shows—a tragedy that would not be lost on Denis Johnson, the reclusive, cult author of the eleven loosely linked short stories that make up the collection which inspired the movie.
Picador (US) cover
The stories gathered here are not traditional tales. They are segments, episodes, dreams, hallucinations, trips and revelations. Think William Bourroughs on prescription drugs channelling Dylan Thomas as he wanders through parking lots and peeps into the windows of strangers, and you are halfway there. In these brutal and elemental stories Johnson takes a scalpel to our collective human skin and opens us up to reveal our dirty, grimy and ugly, but vital—and often beautiful—insides. You’ll read these stories with your hands over your eyes.
The drifter who wanders through every page of Jesus’ Son is an unnamed narrator whom we are told will answer to “Fuckhead”. He is an addict, a loser, and a lover capable of both tenderness and betrayal. What sets apart the incandescent “Steady Hands at Seattle General” from the rest of the stories is not formal inventiveness (go to “Dirty Wedding” for that), but its obsessive use of dialogue. One wonders if this is the story that clinched the film for Maclean. The low-key, deadpan delivery in the exchange between Fuckhead and another patient at Seattle General is reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “Whoever Was Using this Bed” or “Cathedral”. This comparison with Carver is not arbitrary. In 1969, while a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Johnson was taught by the man himself.
Carver’s influence can be seen in the perfectly shaped sentences that explode like small epiphanies off every page. While Carver stuck to whiskey, Johnson shovelled fistfuls of pills into his mouth and dulled himself with heroine. What these two writers share creatively is a tautness of prose, a clarity of vision, and a melancholia punctuated by redemption and transcendence. But where Carver is Apollonian, Johnson is plainly Dionysian. His characters rage, ramble, scrabble, love, fuck, steal, kill, hope, and die. Their lives are ragged and uneven and stained with regret, love gone wrong, and every type of drug imaginable. Thankfully for us, where Carver is, sadly, no longer with us, Johnson is very much so and still making remarkable work.
In “Steady Hands”, we are not told if the central narrator admitted himself to the detox centre at Seattle General or if he had been brought there by someone—a wife, a mother, a friend, an enemy? This detail is irrelevant though. What matters is that he has been there for two days, and despite the Haldol and the “playpen” of other prescription drugs coursing through his veins, he is more lucid than he has been for some time. Even in his clear moments, however, he has “turned from a light, Styrofoam thing into a person.” And with the rush of legal chemicals in his brain he sees vases, ashtrays, and beds that “looked wet and scary, hardly bothering to cover up their true meanings.” In Johnsonland, nothing bothers to cover up its true meaning; and yet, for all that honesty and hot white clarity, we are left grappling at the mystery behind his words.
Although the set-up of “Steady Hands” could initially appear tragic, the story is in fact funny—laugh-out-loud funny—despite being a conversation between a young, detoxing narrator and an older inmate, Bill, who has been in and out of rehab and has been shot three times in the face, “once by each wife, for a total of three bullets, making four holes, three ins and one out.”
Before we even hear Bill speak we are told that Fuckhead is shaving him. That is, after holding his hands up and comparing them to sculptures—not what you want in a pair of hands with a razor at your throat. But again, nothing is as it seems. Bill seems very relaxed about the situation, his only advice being, “Don’t get tricky with my moustache.” Then they come to a mutual agreement: that Fuckhead should make Bill’s moustache symmetrical. The grooming details are unnervingly tender, intimate and moving, especially when you realise that only days ago, these two men were killing themselves with booze and narcotics.
Our semi-lucid narrator tells Bill that he wants to write a story or a poem about him and asks Bill to describe himself. Bill says, “I’m a fat piece of shit,” and then describes the damage done to him by the shots fired by each of his wives. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” Bill asks. And our narrator replies, “No, it’s going in word for word.”
We are outside the story somewhat looking in at this moment as we realise that this is Johnson talking. He is unflinching about what “goes in” (Bullets? Words? They’re all the same) and so are his characters. The story winds down gently as our narrator finishes shaving Bill and holds a mirror up to ask what he sees. And then a curveball strikes as Bill confesses that when he looks back on his life he sees wrecked cars full of “people who are just meat now, man.” The older man can only look back, his life ahead just a foggy shape on the horizon. But Fuckhead, we are led to believe, has some hope, some future in front of him. He tells Bill, “Hey you’re doing fine.” Only for Bill to reply, “Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I’m fine.”
“Steady Hands at Seattle General” is from the short story collection, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, first published in 1992. You can buy the collection from Granta, UK; or from Picador, US. You can also read the story here.