‘Dundun’ by Denis Johnson

Dundun by Denis Johnson, 1989

The magic trick:

Skewing reality into a very strange, twisted blend of normalcy and crazy morality 

Our trip through Iowa this week takes a very scary detour into the world of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son collection. “Dundun” employs a trick that we see throughout the collection – the use of a distorted cause-effect world. This story shocks us in the first scene when the title character announces nonchalantly, “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

OK, that’s different, the reader thinks. Not your normal story world.

But just when you’re bracing for the world to be turned completely upside down, the story rights itself a little bit. “Dundun” doesn’t go totally crazy, but instead – like the best Barthelme stories – settles somewhere close to crazy.

The characters do react to this gunshot wound at least a little bit. This isn’t surrealism or magic realism. This is their reality. Scary to consider.

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

The selection:

I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck.

He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

“McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

“You mean killed him?”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Is he really dead?”

“No. He’s sitting down.”

“But he’s alive.”

“Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle.


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