This week we’re reading Denis Johnson’s “Two Men“. Johnson (of course of course) received his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He has written a good double handful of novels—including the National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke—a spattering of poetry collections, some plays, and a screenplay. Oh, and you know how the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to nobody this year? Yeah, well, that’s in part Johnson’s fault; Train Dreams, a novella he published last year, was one of the three books—along with The Pale King and Swamplandia!—that the board couldn’t choose between. He is best known, however, for Jesus’ Son, his only short story collection; published in 1992, it brought him immediate recognition and acclaim. It is from this collection that our story is taken.
“Two Men” takes place over the course of a long, boozy night. The narrator, after putting his hands down another man’s girlfriend’s pants, leaves the bar at which he’s been partying; fearing retribution, the narrator decides to hunt down the man he thinks is hunting him.
The second (optional) reading is Thomas de Quincey’s fantastic essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”. De Quincey (1785-1859) wrote a great deal on a great many subjects; suffice it to say that there is a twenty-one volume edition of his collected works, and that the subjects addressed therein range from the highly technical theories of economist David Ricardo to the opiated personal reveries for which De Quincey is most famous.
“On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” is considered one of the most influential pieces of Shakespeare criticism to come out of the 19th century. It’s readable, interesting, enlightening; it’s a damn good essay.
1) Who are the two men in “Two Men”? And once you’ve answered this for yourself: Why?
2) How does Johnson, like Shakespeare, insinuate his readers into a world where, in De Quincey’s words, “human nature—i.e., the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man—[is] gone, vanished, extinct, and that the fiendish nature ha[s] taken its place.”?
3) Near the end of his essay, De Quincey tells us that “All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction.” Johnson’s story ends right before a presumably sinister reaction begins. Why? Is Johnson flouting De Quincey’s idea? Or is the “reaction” somehow more terrible (as all unexpounded, unmeasured, inapprehensible things are) because it is left to the reader’s imagination?