Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'The Crack-House Flicker': The Sacred and the Absurd in the Short Stories of Dennis Cooper, Dennis Johnson, and Thom Jones

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'The Crack-House Flicker': The Sacred and the Absurd in the Short Stories of Dennis Cooper, Dennis Johnson, and Thom Jones

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article focuses on the short stories of Dennis Cooper, in particular Wrong, on Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, and on Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest and Cold Snap. The article seeks to establish a connection between religion and narcotics in their work, and suggests that the encounters with both the sacred and the absurd in the work of all three writers are invariably associated with the heavy usage of various drugs; indeed, the actual conflation of drug abuse and religion provides a crucial dynamic to the work of all three writers.

Even an image he'd thought religious this morning is just a snap of some junkie on hands and knees, beckoning over one shoulder, eyes drugged to pitch-black, asshole fucked so many times it resembles an empty eye socket.

'Safe', Dennis Cooper

His chest was like Christ's. That's prob-ably who he was.

'Dirty Wedding', Denis Johnson

'You heard a voice from God?' 'Seemed like I did', Ad Magic said.

'Quicksand', Thom Jones

In his essay 'The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction', Charles E. May cites Lionel Trilling to draw a useful distinction between the novel and the short story:

Whereas the novel is primarily a social and public form, the short story is mythic and spiritual. While the novel is primarily structured on a conceptual and philosophic framework, the short story is intuitive and lyrical. The novel exists to reaffirm the world of 'everyday' reality; the short story exists to 'defamiliarize' the everyday. Storytelling does not spring from one's confrontation with the everyday world, but rather from one's encounter with the sacred (in which true reality is revealed in all its plenitude) or with the absurd (in which true reality is revealed in all its vacuity).[1]

In Robert Stone's 'Miserere', from his collection of stories Bear & His Daughter, the alcoholic protagonist lays the bodies of several aborted children on the floor before the altar of a Catholic church:

Finally, she was alone with the ancient Thing before whose will she stood amazed, whose shadow and line and light they all were; the bad priest and the questionable young man and Camille Innaurato, she herself and the unleavened flesh fouling the floor. Adoring, defiant, in the crack-house flicker of the hideous, consecrated half-darkness, she offered It Its due, by old command.[2]

The memorable phrase 'crack-house flicker' here links religion with narcotics, and the encounters with the sacred and the absurd in the short stories of Dennis Cooper, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones are invariably associated with the heavy usage of various drugs; indeed, the actual conflation of drug abuse and religion provides a crucial dynamic to the work of all three writers.

The short story is particularly well-suited to an interrogation of religious presence or absence, in large part because of its form. Although much contemporary critical thought accounts for the development of literary forms materially,[3] it can also be suggested that the form of the short story is the primary narrative form. May writes: 'The short story from its beginning is primarily a literary mode which has remained closer to the primal narrative form that embodies and recapitulates mythic perception' (p. 139). May cites Frank O'Connor to suggest: 'The short story has always been detached from any concept of a normal society, remaining by its very nature remote from the community -- romantic, individualistic, and intransigent; consequently, always in the short story there is a sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society' (p. xxv). The alienation Cooper's characters experience, in particular, can also be seen formally represented in his work. It can be argued that all that separates Cooper's novels from his short stories is marketing: all his writing is episodic and fragmented. As with Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Cooper's novels can be read as groups of short stories, even sketches or vignettes, thereby formally representing the alienation and estrangement experienced by the characters. …

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