31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 2: “Out on Bail” by Denis Johnson

August 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Jesus’ Son.

jesus-sonCompassion is a word that is overused, and frequently misused, by authors and critics alike in discussing the appropriate way for authors to approach both their characters and their readers. But for the fiction writer, compassion – in the sense of a kind of piteous sympathy for a person’s character or situation – is at once emotionally suspect and dishonest. It assumes a kind of emotional superiority over the object toward which it is directed, and, in many cases, it betrays the fiction writer’s first imperative: to tell the truth.

Instead of compassion, I prefer empathy – that is, an attempt at understanding another person’s foibles and flaws, without judgment or pity. In an interview published earlier this year in the National Post, novelist Zoë Heller suggested that if any remnant of the Victorian idea of novels as tools for human betterment still applies, it is in their ability to forge empathy for others, even, perhaps especially, for those scarred and flawed members of humanity.

This is an idea that Denis Johnson embraces in his short fiction. Hardly compassionate, the linked stories in Jesus’ Son – about drug addicts and hustlers, petty thieves and murderers – are nonetheless shot through with empathy for the human condition, and a brazen, clear-eyed understanding of the forces that compel a person to explore some of the darkest places in the human soul.

They can also be startlingly, staggeringly funny. The first-person narrator of “Out on Bail” enters the Vine, a dive bar he frequents to drink and occasionally nod out on heroin, and encounters Jack Hotel, dressed in “an olive-green three-piece suit,” who has just come from court, where he is on trial for the armed robbery of some college students “who’d been selling a lot of cocaine.” The narrator initially assumes that Hotel is drinking on the court’s lunch break because he has resigned himself to a guilty verdict: “He’d looked into his lawyer’s eyes and fathomed that it would be a short trial.” Only later does it become apparent that Hotel is not despairing of going to jail, but celebrating his acquittal:

His lawyer had managed to clear him on the curious grounds that he’d been trying to defend the community against the influence of these drug dealers. Completely confused as to who the real criminals were in this case, the jury had voted to wash their hands of everybody and let him off.

Coming as this does in the midst of an extended immersion in the Vine and its denizens – including an alcoholic ex-boxer in his fifties (“He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d wasted only a few years.”) – the joke about the jury’s confusion is so surprising that the reader bursts out in cathartic laughter. The expert modulation of mood and tone in a story that runs barely six printed pages is a testament to Johnson’s complete mastery of his materials, and of his apparently effortless ability to draw emotion out of his situations without a reader even noticing what he’s up to. (His writing is apparently effortless, for anyone who has ever attempted fiction knows that the hardest thing to do is to make it look easy.)

Hotel and the narrator drink together at the Vine, engage in some Social Security fraud, and buy heroin to get high. The two characters come to startlingly divergent ends, and the emotional wallop that the story’s finale packs is undeniable. There is a note of almost evanescent hope in the story’s final line, until it becomes apparent that the continuation of a life that has consigned itself to a reductive spiral of drugs and alcohol could be construed as nothing more than a desperate death-in-life, a vain holding out for the final end. This notion of life as an anguished interregnum between birth and death pervades the story, and is contained in its very title, which implies only a brief respite before the final verdict is passed.

There is little compassion in this vision, but a great deal of empathetic understanding.

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