‘Work’ by Denis Johnson

Work by Denis Johnson, 1988

The magic trick:

Saying something profound about a man’s life by showing how little it takes to make him happy and proud

Many of the stories in Jesus’ Son make their point through negative experiences. “Work,” one of the collection’s most famous entries, does the opposite. In the story, our narrator recalls a day made memorable by the warm feelings of pride engendered by his spending a morning ripping some copper wiring out of an abandoned house. He’s made his own money, and when he spends it later in the day on drinks at the bar, the drinks taste so good he’s almost bursting with happiness.

This, we should mention here, is almost even sadder than the story about his overdosed, dead friend. The fact that this man feels so free of guilt by doing a couple of hours of illegal work for $28 in illegal money, well, that says a lot about the days when he doesn’t work, doesn’t it?

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

The selection:

Because, after all, in small ways, it was turning out to be one of the best days of my life, whether it was somebody else’s dream or not. We turned in the scrap wire for twenty-eight dollars – each – at a salvage yard near the gleaming tracks at the edge of town, and went back to the Vine.

Who should be pouring drinks there but a young woman whose name I can’t remember. But I remember the way she poured. It was like doubling your money. She wasn’t going to make her employers rich. Needless to say, she was revered among us.

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