Post Road Magazine #26

"Dirty Wedding"

Steven Lee Beeber

Choosing one work by Denis Johnson against the rest puts me in mind of that old saw parents tell their children: "I love all my babies equally." After all, this is an author whose most recent collection of poetry eulogizes a massive holy altar constructed—outsider art style—by a janitor using scavenged bits of paper and gym clips. And he's the same guy who wrote the underappreciated Angels, a dark romance-cum-road novel that utilizes addiction for the first genre and a Greyhound bus trip for the second. Perhaps best of all he's the author of Jesus' Son, a collection of linked stories that almost doesn't need an introduction at this point, having lost none of its power since emerging in the early '90s, glowing with infernal radiance as the words seem to levitate above the page.

    Yes, it's difficult to single out one work by this modern master, so on second thought I won't. I'll simply say that my pick, "Dirty Wedding," is not so much my favorite as it is the current top hit on my playlist. And that's because I've come to realize yet another layer of its brilliance. When I first read the story in The New Yorker, I was awed by its linguistic pyrotechnics and the almost embarrassing honesty of its emotions. Who is this Johnson guy, and why is The New Yorker publishing his dirty French words (the single n of his first name made me think he'd been translated). More importantly, where can I read more of his work? Now, years later, having read Johnson's entire oeuvre (there's those French again), I've come to see that I completely missed the wit of that story, especially the level that lies, like Hemingway's sub-textual iceberg, beneath the surface.

    My revelation? That "Dirty Wedding" is a kind of shadow story, a comment in purely Johnson style on Hemingway's classic "Hills Like White Elephants". Obviously, both stories revolve around abortions, but it goes beyond that. Johnson's "Dirty Wedding" is "Hills Like White Elephants" rewritten for the truly lost generation, the one that was shellshocked less by war and bombs than by sex, drugs, and grad school attempts to become credentialed in adolescence. . .um, I mean art (MFA anyone?).

    Consider the two stories. Hemingway's much-anthologized (1927) tale features a man and a woman at a train station bar. They are talking— or rather, talking around—the big question, whether the woman should abort the child they have created together. Or is that the big question? Actually, for the woman it appears to be something else. "Then what will we do afterwards?"
    "We'll be fine afterwards," the man says. But we suspect otherwise. The man claims that after the abortion the two will go back to being as they once were, just a couple without a third getting in the way. The woman, far wiser, notes that things can never be the same, much as one can't block out the very thing one has been forbidden imagining (Whatever you do, don't think of a white elephant!). In the course of their conversation, they drink enough to fell an elephant, note the presence of snow-covered mountains, remark on the nature of the operation ("It's just to let the air in," he says), and become frustrated, stopping only when the woman cries, "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?" The story ends much as it began, with the barren landscape around the station and the unrelenting sun, yet now the couple are no longer in the shade of the bar with the waitress emerging from behind a curtain with drinks—they are at separate ends of the station, the woman drinking alone, the man peering down the tracks for the train.

    "Dirty Wedding" also begins with a train, in this case the El that the narrator rides aimlessly, looking at the squalor of real life and the fake come-ons of advertisements (". . . a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor. . .gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head— tunnel. . .") Beyond this most un-barren of settings, described in anything but terse language (the first page is mostly one long sentence), the story moves directly to the abortion, the man coming behind the hospital curtain and saying to his lover, "What did they stick up you?" Not exactly the "simple operation" where they "let the air in," and not exactly a terse reaction to the tragedy of the child he apparently now wishes he'd never let un-exist. This narrator has no grace under pressure, and when the nurse basically bounces him out of the clinic for his behavior, he grumbles, "Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah." Seven times total, exactly the same number that the woman in Hemingway's story says "please" when she wants her own companion to shut up.

    As "Dirty Wedding" moves back onto the train, the narrator goes on a journey into the underworld, getting hard for a man who looks like Jesus but sounds like a hood, following a young girl into a hotel that seems less like a crackhouse than hell, and imagining "being curled up and floating in darkness." Only near the end of the story does he reveal that the mother of his would-be child died from an overdose—and we are reminded that he initially introduced her to the story while looking out of his window at snow-covered mountains.

    Those mountains, if we are to conflate the narrator with the author, could be located in Idaho, where Hemingway died and Denis Johnson then lived. Yet those hills are no longer like white elephants, they're as barren as the relationships that couldn't survive a child entering and so cementing them. Johnson's narrator says explicitly at the end of the story that the abortion in question had nothing to do with religious or feminist readings of right or wrong, but rather with what the potential "mother and father did together"—the same thing, ironically, that ensured they'd come apart. The same is implied, if unspoken, in Hemingway's story— the man and woman talking about whether or not to have the child are really talking about whether to stay together and ultimately deciding the opposite. Yet in Johnson's case, it appears to be the woman who has made the decision, and the more passive man—the one who aimlessly lets trains take him where they may and relies on drugs to give him good feelings—that's gone along with it. It's "Hills Like White Elephants" turned on its head, upside down and inside out, a new man nothing like Hemingway's, yet facing the same situation.

    The man at the heart of Johnson's "Dirty Wedding" is displaying about as much grace under pressure as Hemingway's brains did in the face of his shotgun. In doing so, he gives lie to the mask even Hemingway finally had to let slip. Fuckhead, the hero of Jesus' Son, is a man-child, stricken and striking back, but he's more honest than Hemingway's hero could ever be. He hurts in the face of what he and his lover have done. He's fucked up by it, and he's trying to be gracious, but all he ends up doing is getting stoned. Only when he finally can no longer take it and reaches out to all the other broken people in rehab, the ones that were "openly a mess" ("no more pretending for [them]"), does he reach some measure of wellness. Hmm, that sounds kind of self-helpish, doesn't it? Okay, instead let's say that once he notes the obvious elephant in the room and screams loudly about it, he crosses the divide of his own loneliness and makes connection. In that sense, he's a little like an explorer and warrior all at once, facing the unknown future bravely and openly, like Hannibal crossing the Alps on. . .well, you know.

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