‘Happy Hour’ by Denis Johnson

Happy Hour by Denis Johnson, 1992

The magic trick:

Beginning the story with an objective for the narrator, only to wind up letting his drug addiction carve up a random plot of loose and dead ends

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son collection features a suite of meandering Seattle stories. This is one.

The first sentence blatantly lays out the narrator’s objective. It literally starts with the words, “I was after…”

He’s in love with a 17-year-old belly dancer. But be forewarned, his focus isn’t exactly laser focused.

Which of course is the point.

He might start with his objective, but quickly it becomes clear he has no goal at all. He is reckless with drug addiction and we watch his lifestyle takes him all over Seattle and nowhere in particular.

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

The selection:

I was sitting on the city bus—this was in Seattle—later that morning. I was down front, in the long seat that faces sideways. A woman across from me held a large English-literature textbook in her lap. Next to her sat a light-skinned black man. ‘Yeah,’ she said to him. ‘Today’s payday. And it feels good, even if it’s not gonna last.’ He looked at her. His big forehead made him seem thoughtful. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I got twenty- four hours left in this town.’

The weather outside was clear and calm. Most days in Seattle are grey, but now I remember only the sunny ones.

I rode around on the bus for three or four hours. By then a huge Jamaican woman was steering the thing. ‘You can’t just sit on the bus,’ she said, talking to me in her rearview mirror. ‘You’ve got to have a destination.’

‘I’ll get off at the library, then,’ I said.

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