Oct 16, 2010

'Yeah. That's right. Yeah. So I took it': Displaced characters in Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson is the master of displaced characters.

I was going to say morally ambiguous, but that's not right, not quite, and it can mean evil, and his characters are evil sometimes, and often amoral, but that's not what's so right about the way he writes them. They're displaced, or deceneted, or lost but in a particular sort of way; they're indefinite, though not ill defined, and the drift in the way men I have known, working class men and lower class men, really do drift.

Take Jimmy Luntz, the main character in Johnson's latest, Nobody Move. The book is basically a crime caper book -- it's like No Country for Old Men, but funny, or something by Elmore Leonard, but a little more literary. The blurb on the cover of the copy I have says the New Yorker says "So noir it's almost pitch-black," but that's not even close to right. I read it in one sitting, one train trip, which is pretty unusual for me, and I think it's a sharp, sharp book, even though it's not Johnson's best. Nobody Move follows Luntz, who owes money to some bad guys in Southern California and ends up on the run up the Central Valley and in the foothills and up into the Sierra Nevada mountains in the north of the state around Feather River. Luntz isn't a hero or even an anti-hero, but a kid. Sometimes he's confused, and sometimes impulsive, and he changes, a couple of times, the reasons for why he does what he does, and most of the time he's ambiguous to himself. It's not all thought through, which I like a lot and think is right, accurate: he looks at himself and he doesn't know.

There's a great scene where Luntz declares "I'm not a thug," and the woman who's with him, who's a bit older than him, responds, "You don't know what you are." And he doesn't, which is remarkable for a character in a book, but pretty accurate for most of the people I have met. Even when Luntz does figure out who he is, or thinks he figures it out, he articulates in such a way that his saying it undermines it at the moment it's said. For example, at one point when he thinks he might die and is talking too much, he tells this story:
"-- and this old guy moved in like three places down from us," Jimmy was
staying. "It was a trailer park. I think I was twelve. Dude told me he'd pay me
twenty dollars a day to clean up his trailer before he moved in. 'Clean up my
trailer, twenty bucks per day.' Gave me disinfectant and a bucket and all that
shit.' [...] Took me four and half days to get it like new. Never worked that
hard before or since. And at the end of this he explained the whole thing to me
carefully. [...] This dude -- I'd say he was sixty, maybe. Drawing disability,
periodic drunk, family gone, you know what I mean, just your typical solitary
human wreck. And he says, 'I've got ninety dollars for you. You sure earned it,
and I've got it. Or you can have this lottery ticket.' Out it comes. Yeah, big
old card in the palm of his hand. 'This ticket,' he says, 'cost a dollar fifty.
So if I pay you the ninety, you could find somebody to buy you sixty tickets
just like it. Or you can take this one. Just this one.' Yeah. That's right.
Yeah. So I took it.'"

Besides being funny, and besides the fact that it's a spot-on recreation of the voice of a down-and-out Californian, the story is brilliant because it gives us this character who, as soon as he says who he is, isn't and can't be this person. He's displaced, and displaced again. He's lost, and as soon as he can articulate that, then there's a way in which he isn't lost, which makes him lost in another way again. And it's sad -- that's there -- but it's funny, too, and it's funny to him.

Consider, by comparison, how other authors would have dealt with this. Other authors, when their characters are lost or our losers, it's not like this.

With Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, John Cheever or even Richard Ford, a character like this is a character having an existential crisis. He and the world are misaligned, and he broods, or he's bitter, and he feels like something's wrong. It's a crisis. A crisis of self, of existence. The thing is, though, it's never the character who's displaced here, with these other authors, it's the world. The character is still at the exact, solipsistic center of being.

Elmore Leonard often writes characters like this, but with him they're always bumblers, and the joke's on them in a way that they could never tell that joke they're in. His characters, the low lives, mis-perceive themselves and their situation and the world they're in. They're always lost but they never know it, always thinking of themselves as the center of the story and as in control, though they never are.

Or take authors who write losers, who write lost white men. Take Charles Bukowski or Tim O'Brien or Raymond Carver. I love Carver, I think he's great, but even his characters, low like this, they brood, and they dwell on it or drink and revel in the way they are and the world is, and they're the center of the story. They at least know what the story is and what story they're in, and if a Carver character or an O'Brien or a Bukowski character is drinking, they know they're drinking, and why and what it means and where it's going to go. Their characters know.

The men I've known almost never do.

Put it like this: Maybe what it is is that, for a lot of writers, the down-and-out nature of their character becomes the substance of the plot, the radius around which they build, and however the character is down-and-out turns out to be the same way as how they structure the story. It's not necessarily that those authors are doing it wrong when they do this, just that they're doing something else. But one of the things that feels false to me -- something I'm only realizing through reading Denis Johnson -- is the way their characters, however lost they are, are cognizant in some kind of way about what kind of story this is they're in. They're always placed, if not in the world then in meaning. Those characters often end up being identical with their stories, made from the same stuff, ordered in the same way. However they are is how the narrative is.

Johnson's characters, though, don't know who they are, and they wander around a lot without every finding the load-bearing walls of their world, or figuring out the order for how the streets are laid out and the houses are numbered. They're lost. Even in the narrative that's ostensibly theirs.

This is true in Johnson's big book, Tree of Smoke, where Skip Sands never really figures out what his story is actually about or what it was that was going on. There's a moment maybe in the beginning where he thinks he sees, when he shoots the monkey and John F. Kennedy dies, but then it passes and he doesn't know and you as the reader know you don't know anymore either, even about the monkey back at the beginning, except that it was a moment, weird and beautiful and bad and you won't forget. Which seems to me about right.

It's true in Angels, too, which I think is probably Johnson's best book, where neither of the characters, the Houston brothers, ever seem to find the plot or any narrative thread, and the story shifts, and shifts again, dislocated and dislocating, inconsistent, indeterminate, and a lot like life where there isn't an arc or a story that plays all the way out, or it does play out but then you're still going after the story's over and the story you were in isn't there any more but you are. Even at the end, when who they are and what and where are clear, or would be to anyone else, for any other author, these characters look at themselves like old men surprised by their bodies, thinking is this me?

It's like the opposite of a conspiracy theory, the opposite of being or thinking you are or were the master of the universe, knowing you're not at the center of things. His characters are displaced in their own narratives.

Maybe most of us experience our lives like little solipsists, like Portnoy's always in a monologue. Maybe most of us know our story and know we know our story. We have it down like AA meeting men and women, crafted and learned from Hello my name is ... on up to I'm standing here to day. Maybe we, like evangelicals, have our testimonies and they're well worked over, well prepared.

I don't feel like that though. And I don't feel like that's how it is for most of the people I've know. Not when I knew them or felt like I really did. For me, for them, the stories change. The stories are different at different times and sometimes half way through I realize a story isn't what it was when I told it before, and autobiography, when I do it, always feels like it's falling into fragments. Short stories that don't all belong to one collection.

I knew a guy once who was working all summer to save money for a training program so he could go be a firefighter for a research camp in Antarctica. He liked surf rock and nice clothes and had a lot of pictures of a plane on fire from one of the tests they did at the training program. I asked him why he wanted to go, and really, he didn't have an answer to that.

I met a guy once in a maximum security prison whose son was in the prison too. He wanted to introduce me and he was proud his son had gotten the best job an inmate can get and could work so he could get his GED. It wasn't a joke. He really was proud.

I knew a guy once who worked nights at Wal Mart, though really he was an accountant or something like that but had lost his job and couldn't get unemployment because of some paper work or something. He drove a long way to work at Wal Mart and he fit in but that bothered him. He taught me not to use the pallet jack with the "R" on it because it veered to the right and he never came back to work after his weekend. I knew him, I guess, maybe six days.

I feel like I've always know a lot of lost people, people around on the edge, displace, drifting and ambiguous especially to themselves. I don't see that often in fiction, though. There's not a lot of room, I guess, for that in narratives as we, for the most part, make them. Denis Johnson does, though, and maybe his America is the one most familiar to me.

It's like, early in Nobody Moves, someone asks Jimmy Luntz what's the point of what he does, and he says, "I didn't realize there had to be a point." Then someone asks him, later, "You think I don't know why you're telling me this?" And Johnson writes, "Over in his corner, the Tall Man coughed. Or laughed." Because that's the thing: you don't know which one it is, and you can't know, can't say, unless you're going to give it meaning or make it have meaning, and you do that now you might have to change, come back and say, OK, it wasn't that it was the other, so you can only know later at the end when it's over, and even then it might not all arc so neatly. Luntz says, "Maybe you do and maybe you don't."

Which is what it's like to be displaced. Denis Johnson really is the master of that.