‘Two Men’ by Denis Johnson

Two Men by Denis Johnson, 1988

The magic trick:

Throwing down the gauntlet in the first paragraph, using what sounds like an incredibly interesting story as a mere introductory throwaway 

We begin a treacherous week on the SSMT site. A seven-day dive into one of the most beloved story collections published in my lifetime, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. What’s scarier – spending time in this drug-addled, chaotic prose or daring to write something critical of this most sacred of sacred cows?

Well, it’s a moot point, because I went in skeptical and came out amazed. It’s a story collection worth the hype, no doubt, and I say that as someone who doesn’t typically go in for art drawn from the raw, troubled mind of an addict. These stories transcend the gonzo trippy myths. It’s just really, really, really good writing.

So we begin with “Two Men,” one of the collection’s very best and most troubling stories. The story’s first paragraph is remarkable – not for the beauty or power of its prose but for the gauntlet it lays down.

Basically, our narrator starts by sharing the full friendship arc of the two people he will be hanging out with in this story. He lets us know up front that he doesn’t care about these men, in fact he says he hates them. He then explains that soon after the episode he is about to narrate, the three men went their separate ways after the robbery of a pharmacy went bad.

OK, let’s just hold up for a second. The story he isn’t telling us is about the robbery of a pharmacy that left one of the men bleeding outside a hospital. Again, that’s the story he isn’t telling us.

So, the reader thinks, if that’s his B-side collection of anecdotes, how amazing is the story he actually is about to tell us going to be? The narrator doesn’t disappoint either.

And that’s quite a trick on Johnson’s part.

The selection:

I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light, and so we kept on in one another’s company, going to bars and having conversations. Generally one of these false coalitions died after a day or a day and a half, but this one had lasted more than a year. Later on one of them got hurt when we were burglarizing a pharmacy, and the other two of us dropped him bleeding at the back entrance of the hospital and he was arrested and all the bonds were dissolved. We bailed him out later, and still later all the charges against him were dropped, but we’d torn open our chests and shown our cowardly hearts, and you can never stay friends after something like that.

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