Alex Bowler On:
Two Men by Denis Johnson
‘Two Men’ first appeared in September 1988, in the pages of the New Yorker magazine. Four years later, it would feature as the second story in Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which a certain portion of the global literati will tell you is the standout volume of stories of the last quarter-century. Narrated by an unnamed man reeling from his addiction to heroin and alcohol, it is, the critics say, a book which brought the ‘dulled sensibility’ and ‘too-big sentimentality’ of the addict to life, risking insensitivity to make something vital and new. ‘Two Men’ is only a dozen pages long. It moves with the pace of a bullet.
Within fifty lines, we are presented with a mystery and a problem: ‘the first man’ — a junkie who will not, or cannot, speak — appears in the back seat of the narrator’s little green Volkswagen. He isn’t supposed to be there. Who is he, and how are we going to get rid of him?
And we are presented with a threat: a jealous boyfriend — ‘a mean, skinny, intelligent man I happened to feel inferior to’ —is on the narrator’s tail and is bound to make ‘something painful and degrading happen’ soon. And then, we are shown the narrator’s gun.
It’s a cheap gun — ‘so cheap, I was sure it would explode in my hands if I ever pulled the trigger’. But the hunch is this is Chekhov’s rifle: it’s going to be fired at some point in the next dozen pages.
By the time we get back to that gun, there are, by my count, at least three conventional plot twists. We have encountered myriad mysteries and barely seen tragedies. We have toured the heroin houses, met the ‘ghost-complected women’, cruised the city in the company of friends sketched so briskly as to resemble already the chalk outlines of the dead. We have been put inside a consciousness that seems to give no thought to others any more; a consciousness ‘plagued’ by the senses, that would rather not pay too much attention to what is around it, because when it does, the world’s too much: you can hear ‘the seeds … moaning in the gardens’. But through this cracked consciousness we see glimmers of a fully lived past degrading into incoherence, and it is heartbreaking. The narrator looks at a woman in serious trouble, a girl ossifying young in her bra and blurred mascara. ‘I thought of going out in the fields with my wife,’ he tells us, ‘back when we were so in love we didn’t know what it was.’
We move at pace through the action because the narrator’s junkie consciousness does not require, or can no longer see, a coherent line of cause and effect. This is liberating for the reader; dare I say, it’s enjoyable; there’s a very guilty novelty to exploring the distorting world this way. We need not be delayed by how A led to B, how B affects C. But it can’t be held at bay: the catalyst to all this is illness — and that illness, that ill-logic, will lead to the agonising denouement, and back to that gun.
… Then, when you’ve finished ‘Two Men’, there is a very simple, unanswerable question: Who is the second man of the title? The ‘mean, skinny, intelligent’ boyfriend? The ‘first man’, whose second persona we learn as the story progresses? Or does the title refer entirely to the narrator, split as he is? But then: he isn’t split in two, is he?
He’s shattered into pieces; the whole is now unsalvageable. And so ‘Two Men’ is no Jekyll and Hyde. It is far more complicated, intangible and out-of-reach than that. And somehow, you suspect, a little truer.