Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In the tradition of the French Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, who believed that the creative writer should experiment with drugs to produce visionary texts, Denis Johnson’s story is less concerned with developing a conventional linear plot than with illuminating a certain state of mind for the purposes of exploring philosophical and religious questions. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, the narrator maintains that during the thunderstorm he can distinctly identify every drop of rain, even going so far as to recognize each droplet by name. This mystical hyperawareness is partially a delusional effect of the drugs he has taken, but at the same time, it brings into the story the hypothetical possibility of complete omniscience. In Western culture, this perspective has usually been allocated to the Judeo-Christian God. However, the story implies that, if this God exists, he takes no position whatsoever in the face of violent chaos and suffering.

Despite the narrator’s clairvoyant powers, the story suggests that human experience is random and bereft of benevolent transcendental meaning. Humanity’s being caught in inescapable solipsism further complicates the condition of human absurdity. Contemplating the sleeping driver hanging from his wrecked car, the narrator maintains that the fundamental sadness of human life is not death itself as much as the fact that the dying man cannot communicate what he is dreaming to the...

(The entire section is 579 words.)