(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Denis Johnson writes about lost souls, who have faint hopes of finding, if not God, at least some meaning in their lives. His themes and violent descriptions echo the works of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Stone, two of his major influences. Johnson portrays the marginal in American society: the addicts, alcoholics, homeless, beggars, and crooks, as well as those who simply cannot or will not adapt to mainstream culture, a culture that itself is crumbling and has helped create the characters it rejects. Johnson’s characters seem able to survive on hope and human resilience, no matter how outcast or alienated they may be. Ultimately, Johnson’s themes are metaphysical. The alienation of his characters implies a someone or a something from which to be alienated.

Johnson’s finely detailed works are often episodic and surreal but told in a colloquial, almost intimate manner. He balances a wry detachment from his characters with a tenderness for even the most criminal of them. Johnson’s narrators are often addicts. Therefore, the narrator’s voice is alternately dreamy and brutally factual, shifting from a detachment, which speaks casually of bullets and blood, to an unexpected, intimate recognition of the characters’ common humanity. The sudden intrusion of compassion in otherwise cold narratives has the effect of producing both Christlike and pathological states within the same character.

By juxtaposing fact and fantasy, realism and surrealism, saintliness and destructive craziness, Johnson flirts with altering the short-story form itself, producing a variation which intrigues as well as appalls. As the reader watches losers spiral downward through the consciousness of a narrator, who is also “not all there,” he or she feels empathy for them and recognizes the implicit suggestion that, through a shared humanity, the difference between Johnson’s misfits and the rest of society is one of degree only, that in some respects everyone is “not all there.”

“Car Crash While Hitchhiking”

The narrator, high on drugs, hitches a ride in an Oldsmobile and senses an imminent crash the minute he hears the “sweet voices of family inside it.” After the wreck, the narrator, holding the family’s baby, wanders toward the other car that was involved in the accident. Seeing that the broadsided car has been smashed, he assumes all inside are dead and walks past it. Flagging down a passing truck, he tells the truck driver to go for help. Because the truck driver cannot turn around on the narrow bridge, the narrator leaves the truck, sees another car nearing the scene, and approaches it. Then he perceives that the man in the smashed car is not dead but soon will be. At the hospital, he hears the wife shriek when she learns of her husband’s death. The narrator remarks her scream made him “feel wonderful to be alive” and that he had “gone looking for that feeling everywhere,” exhibiting the addict’s relentless search for a rush.

Years later, in a hospital detoxification ward, the narrator experiences a flashback to the accident scene. The ambiguous last phrase, “you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you,” expresses either contempt for those who might count on him or the self-loathing and guilt beneath an addict’s thrill-seeking veneer.


The narrator, working as a hospital clerk, befriends Georgie, an emergency room orderly, who steals pills (which the narrator takes) and is always high. Terrence Weber comes in with a knife stuck in his one good eye. Explaining that his wife stabbed him, Weber claims the knife has affected his brain because his body will no longer do what his mind directs it to do. The emergency room physician calls for the best eye surgeon, brain surgeon, and anesthetist, then orders Georgie to prepare Weber for surgery, even though he knows Georgie is “not right.”

As the specialists argue over how best to remove the knife, Georgie returns from preparing the patient with the...

(The entire section is 1652 words.)