At this point, I think there are only a few people who pick up a Denis Johnson book and don’t expect to be impressed. Considering works like Train Dreams, Tree of Smoke, Angels, and Jesus’s Son, most people probably have pretty high expectations when approaching an unfamiliar Johnson book.
But, excellent writing is just a starting point. We want a whole lot more than just that. We want wildness. We want raw meat thrown violently onto a plate. At least, approaching Resuscitation Of A Hanged Man for the first time, these were the things I expected and wanted.
I would say that Resuscitation Of A Hanged Man starts off mildly enough, but it doesn’t. I’d be lying. Sure, Lenny English is on his way to a new town and a new job as a late night disc jockey with some private detective work on the side. As innocuous as this might seem on first glance, Lenny doesn’t even finish getting into town before he starts with the action:
[B]ut the drinks got slippery and English’s money was all wet by the time he got out of there, and as he made a U-turn through an intersection the world seemed to buckle beneath him and the car’s hood flew up before the window. English held the wheel and jammed the brake, waiting for the rest of this earthquake, or this bombing or God’s wrath, to destroy the town…Blood ran down his forehead and blinded half his sight. The air reeked: the tank was ripped and twenty dollars’ worth of gasoline covered the asphalt. In his imagination it burst into flames. A cabdriver stopped and came to sand beside him and said, “You made a wrong turn.” English did not dispute this.
Of course, as we learn, we should not be completely surprised by Lenny being surrounded by forces that are (at least apparently) beyond his control. He is where he is at because he quit his old job and tried to hang himself. He attempts to confess this, but the priest refuses absolution because he doesn’t sense that Lenny is repentant. In fact, when pressed as to why he tried to kill himself, though he offers some explanation, he has to admit that he doesn’t really know why he did it.
Now, Lenny’s time in Provincetown (the new town I mentioned he was heading to) starts out seeming less strange than what has gone before. He does surveillance for his boss, Ray Sands, though he feels bad for spying on people. He spins a few classical records late at night while doing his DJ job. But, even this doesn’t stay normal for very long.
Lenny becomes obsessed with- and enters into a relationship with a woman who professes to be a lesbian (and is at least bisexual). He also becomes obsessed with one of his surveillance cases, a lost artist who was either wrapped up in a shadowy conspiracy or was completely paranoid and delusional, and Lenny begins to become paranoid and delusional. He tells the lesbian that it doesn’t matter if he’s delusional or not and that he is “a knight of faith” who is being called, but is doing his best not to listen.
However, Lenny eventually does start to listen:
He rummaged through her drawers for an envelope and came across her .44 revolver. Altogether the weapon was well over a foot long and must have weighed, he judged by hefting it, nearly five pounds. It wasn’t loaded. He added to its weight a little bit by putting the two bullets into the cylinder.
He’d followed everything out faithfully. He’d been true to every impulse. What was he being asked to do? Immediately he thought of taking this gun and shooting the Bishop, but that was crazy.
On the other hand–would God ask for anything sane?
But, in case this just seems violent and not quite strange enough behavior for you, Lenny doesn’t stop there:
English took off his shirt and pants.
Nothing around here in the way of footwear would fit him. These, his own black no-nonsense Sears service shoes, marketed for the janitorial crowd, would have to do. he wished Leanna’s pantsuits weren’t so small–in a pantsuit and her brown fedora and this slash of lipstick and these flash eyelashes, no one would know if he was a man dressed up as a woman or a woman dressed up as a man.
Mind you, no one knows at this point that Lenny is thinking of doing anything. Therefore, why does he need to go in drag as a disguise? I’m not sure Lenny knows; I’m fairly certain that he’s pretty confused.
And, I was confused myself . . . but in a good way. I was as completely inside this character and the story as much as I could get. I was engaged and was feeling Lenny’s bewilderment as if it was my own. Lenny is doing extreme, desperate things to try to revive himself and the world, and I was running right along with him.
Coming around to where I started, Resuscitation Of A Hanged Man is not the newest book in line from an author proving his earlier promise. This book actually predates the other works of Johnson I was previously familiar with (Train Dreams, Tree of Smoke, and Jesus’s Son). Regardless, I still had the same high expectations when I opened the book as if it was the next link in Johnson’s literary development. Resuscitation Of A Hanged Man may be from earlier in his career, but I wasn’t disappointed.
In all honesty, I think this one holds its own with anything else I’ve read of Johnson.