Resuscitation of a Hanged Man: A Novel

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9780374249496: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man: A Novel

Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is Denis Johnson's most fully realized novel to date, an enthralling and shattering reading experience, which probes the mysteries of faith, hope and love.

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About the Author:

Denis Johnson is the author of The Name of the World, Already Dead, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, and Angels. His poetry has been collected in the volume The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. He is the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award, among many other honors for his work. He lives in northern Idaho.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Resuscitation of a Hanged Man
1980He came there in the off-season. So much was off. All bets were off. The last deal was off. His timing was off, or he wouldn't have come here at this moment, and also every second arc lamp along the peninsular highway was switched off. He'd been through several states along the turnpikes, through weary tollgates and stained mechanical restaurants, and by now he felt as if he'd crossed a hostile foreign land to reach this fog with nobody in it, only yellow lights blinking and yellow signs wandering past the car's windows silently. There was a single fair-sized town on the peninsula, a place with more than one shopping center in it and boarded-up seafood stands strung along the roadside, and the traveller, whose name was Leonard English, thought he'd stop there for a drink, just one drink, before going on. But he was drawn into a very interesting conversation with a man whose face got to look more and more like a dead pig's face in the dim red light. What they were talking about really wasn't all that memorable--it was more the man's face--but 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-turnthrough 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. A shriek, like the tearing of metal train wheels along metal rails, died away. Somebody was opening the door for him ... but he was opening the door for himself, and now he was getting out of the car. There wasn't any cataclysm. It was just a town at night, quiet and useless, with buildings that looked like big toys or false fronts lit by arc lamps and backed by a tremendous bleakness. Somehow his Volkswagen had climbed up onto a traffic island. The whole thing would have been embarrassing, but he couldn't seem to form any clear picture of what had happened. 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 stand beside him and said, "You made a wrong turn." English did not dispute this. 
To reach his destination at the end of the Cape, English engaged the cabdriver's services, services he couldn't afford any more than he was going to be able to afford this accident."He gonna chadge you exry," the cabdriver said.Chadge? English guessed the driver was talking about the old man who'd towed his car away, but what was he trying to say? "Right," English said."You from Bwostin?" the cabbie asked him.This was just what the policeman had asked him amid the wreckage, saying Boston like Bwostin. "Mr. Leonard English," the officer had said. Looking right at English's Midwestern driver's license, he had inquired after his origins: "You from Bwostin?" "I just got here from Lawrence, Kansas," English told theofficer. "Kansas?" the officer said. "Lawrence, Kansas?"--and English said yes. A little later the officer said, "You're drunk. But I'm gonna let you off.""Drunk? I'm not drunk," English said."Yes you are, you most definitely are," the officer said, "or you wou'nt be arguing with me." With a certain vague tenderness, he was applying a Band-Aid to English's forehead.English said, "I'm a little tipsy. I don't understand what you're saying.""That's better," the officer said.English was glad when the policeman left him in the cabdriver's custody, because he felt cut off from the world here, and to be scrutinized by a powerful figure in a place he hadn't even seen in the daylight yet left him shaken. Properly speaking, this wasn't even a peninsula. He'd had to cross a large bridge to get here. It was an island. A place apart.And now, as they rattled toward this phony peninsula's other end, English was sitting up front with the cabdriver. English was dizzy, and on top of that there seemed to be an exhaust leak, but the driver kept saying, "You're A-OK now, brother." "No, I'm not," English said. They weren't in a taxicab. It was almost six in the morning and the driver was going in his station wagon to his home a couple of towns down the road, taking English dozens of miles out of his way for twenty dollars. "I like to drive," the cabbie said. He puffed on a joint wrapped in yellow paper.English turned it down. "Grass makes me feel kind of paranoid.""I don't get paranoid," the driver said. But he was a paranoid personality if English had ever seen one. "This beyond here, this is absolutely black," the driver said, pointing with the glowing end of his reefer ahead, to where the four-lane highway turned two-way. "No more lights, no more houses"--he drew a chestfulof smoke--"nuthin, nuthin, nuthin. We won't see no traffic. Not car one." Immediately the red taillights of another car shone ahead. "I think I know this guy." He stomped the gas. "I think this is Danny Moss"--pronounced Dyany Mwas--"is that a Toyota? Cheez, looka how fast this guy's running." They were doing eighty. "We're gonna catch you, Danny. We're gaining on this sucker." But they were falling behind. "Ain't that a Toyota?" he said. The red taillights ahead went right, and the cabdriver's gaze followed their course as he and his passenger sailed past the turn they'd taken. "Yeah, that's a Toyota! Yeah, that's him! Yeah, that's Danny Moss!"Actually, they hadn't come to any place of absolute blackness. In a little while the sun was up, burning without heat above the road, and before they reached Provincetown they sped through three or four more little villages, in one of which they stopped and had breakfast. It turned out that Phil, the driver, subscribed to the branch of historical thought characterized by a belief in extraterrestrial interference, previous highly advanced civilizations, and future global cataclysms, both human-made and geological. English now learned something about these things. "All the elemental phosphorus is gonna be like zero, completely gone. We'll be strangling each other in the streets for a little phosphorus," Phil said, "elemental phosphorus. The roads are gonna run with blood. Nobody even knows about it. Nobody's even surprised. Five thousand years ago on the earth they had a big cataclysm and a huge, what is it, whatyoucallit, megadeath. Partly because of running out of some of these elements you need in your body, like phosphorus." He got into a philosophical talk with their waitress and told her, "I think our world could really be some form of Hell, you know what I'm saying?" The waitress saw his point. "There's so much suffering here on earth," she said. Phil knew all the waitresses, and it was after nine when they got back on the road.English fell asleep. When he woke up, the route had gone strange. White dunes made walls on either side of them. European music came out of the radio. They drove through a drift of sand.In a few minutes his head was clear again, and he was looking at the sandy outskirts of the last town in America. The sun was shining above it now. A tower made of stone rose up in the distance. The seaside curved north, to their left, and the wooden buildings were laid out solid, bright and still as a painting, against the beach.They followed the road into town and lost sight of the harbor as they came down the main street of shops. Now there were pedestrians moving alongside them in the chilly sunshine. The traffic crawled. "This crowd is nothing compared to summer," Phil told him. Half the shops appeared closed, and English had a sense of people walking around here where they didn't belong, in an area that might have been abandoned after a panic. Three ungainly women--were they men, in bright skirts?--danced a parody of a chorus line by a tavern's door, arms around one another's shoulders. Passing along the walks and ambling down the middle of the street were people in Bermuda shorts and children eating ice-cream cones as if it weren't under 60 Fahrenheit today. On the lawn of the town hall, surrounded by grey pigeons and scattering crusts of bread out of a white paper bag, stood a woman who was very clearly not a woman but a man: as if a woman wore football shoulder pads and other bulky protection beneath her very modestly tailored dress. Another man in a dress was mailing a letter at the blue mailbox just six feet away. And a cross-dresser on roller skates loomed above two others sitting on a bench, patting his brittle wig lightly with one hand, the other hand on his hip, while laughter that couldn't be heard passed among them. A very tall woman, who might have been a man, talked with a bunch of grade-school childrenout in front of a bakery. English cleared his throat. He had a chance to look at everyone until he was sick of their faces, because the car wasn't getting anywhere.Phil smacked the horn, but nothing happened. "Horn don't work. This is making me apeshit. I'm gonna run some bastards over."They found the source of the traffic jam four blocks down, where a huge-bottomed transvestite comedian on the balcony of a cabaret-and-hotel delivered his Mae West impersonation for free. "Move over, honey!" he shouted down to a woman in a halted convertible. The woman ducked her head in embarrassment and put her hand on the arm of the man driving. Around them the shoppers and tourists, variously shocked and mesmerized, or curious and entertained, laughed at the comedian with his cascading platinum wig and his stupendous, unexplainable breasts. Later that night English would see someone being carried on a stretcher out of the side doors of this building and through the wet, falling snow to an ambulance. And he would think of this man on the balcony in his evening gown making jokes about his potbelly, gripping it with a hand that glittered with rings while flapping his huge false eyelashes, and English wouldn't feel equipped, he wouldn't feel grown-up enough, to be told the whole story about this town. 
Phil knew any number of people in Provincetown. He was connected all up and down the Cape. Long before the Pilgrims, English gathered, long before the Indians, way back past the time of cataclysms, even before the golden age of the extraterrestrial star-wanderers who had mated with monkeys to produce us all, members of Phil's family had arrived here and opened small dark restaurants with steamy walls and radios chattering and yowling in the kitchen, and had applied for liquor licenses which to this day they were denied because the grudges againstthem, though small ones, were eternal. What all this meant was that English wouldn't have to go to a motel. Phil had a cousin who ran a rooming house, freshly painted white and spilling winter roses over a knee-high picket fence, where English could stay cheaply.Phil insisted on carrying English's suitcase up the long stairs through an atmosphere of mingled disinfectant and air-freshening spray into a room that was small but not cheerless. There were big orange ladybugs printed on the white curtains. A faintly discolored portrait of John F. Kennedy hung on the wall above the desk. The bathroom looked harmless--blue sink, blue toilet, blue tub scoured nearly white. "All right, hey, not bad," English assured Phil, but it had every quality of the end of the line.Now that they'd travelled together and English was one of the family, with his very own room in Phil's illustrious cousin's house, Phil wouldn't accept a fare. English had to follow him down the stairs and out to his half-disintegrated yellow station wagon, insisting. Then he accepted the twenty-dollar bill that English pressed on him, and gripped the new tenant's hand with his, the money caught between their palms. His eyes were moist. They were two of the same sort, men past thirty without a lot to recommend them; but this happened to English every day. He had a feeling they'd stay strangers.After Phil was gone, English lay on the bed awhile, but he couldn't sleep because it was daytime and also a little too quiet. He wondered if everybody was at work. Then he remembered that it was Sunday. They'd passed a church, he and Phil, as they'd inched in Phil's vehicle down to the end of Commercial Street, the street of shops, and then in the other direction down Bradford, now his street, the street of his home. English hadn't really noticed, but he thought it might have been a Catholic church. He thought he would go to Mass.In his first few hours on this dismal Cape, before he'd even seen the daylight here, he'd managed to smash his car and put himself in debt to a strange and probably larcenous auto body shop. The idea of a fresh start took on value and weight as he splashed water on his face and, lacking any kind of towel, dried it with the corner of his bedspread, uncovering in the process a bare mattress. If Mass hadn't started at ten, it would be starting soon, at eleven. 
It took English only a few minutes to walk there--St. Peter's, a Catholic institution. He hadn't missed the service. Under a sky the color of iron, people were lugging themselves like laundry toward the big doors of the church. A black arrow outlined in silver directed English toward a side door if he wanted to confess his sins.In a small room next door to the administrative offices, he found a priest bidding goodbye to an old woman and cleaning his spectacles on the hem of his cassock. English backed away as she passed out of the place, and now it was his turn to sit in the wooden chair, separated from his confessor by a partition with little metal wheels.This moment seemed to have swooped down on him from nowhere. He'd tried several times recently to make a good confession, but he'd failed. The problem was that about a year ago he'd more or less attempted to take his own life, to kill himself, and couldn't get started telling why.The priest, a small, preoccupied man, made the sign of the cross and awaited the rote utterances, praying to himself in a rapid whisper.But English had only one thing to confess. "I'm new in town--excuse me ..." Violently he cleared his throat. Now he noticed the room was full of flowers.The priest stopped praying. "Yes. Well, young friend. New in town.""I wonder if--Father, can we dispense with the ... ?" English waved his hand around, and was embarrassed to find that this gesture included the confessional and the cross. He'd meant only the formalities, the ritual. What he wanted was plain absolution."It's a nice quiet time of year to come," Father said in a puzzled tone.English waited a minute. The flowers smelled terrible. "I just went crazy," he said. "I committed--I killed myself.""Uh, you ..." The priest looked up through the partition's screen as if only now beginning to see he wasn't by himself. "In what sense," he began, and didn't finish."What I mean is," English said, "not killed. Tried, I mean. I tried to hang myself.""I see," Father said, meaning, perhaps, that he didn't see.After a few seconds Father said, "Well then. You say you've tried to ... Is there something you've done about this? Have you sought help?""I am. I'm--I'm confessing.""But ..." The priest stalled again.English wondered how much time before Mass. Nobody else was behind him. "I mean ..." he said."Okay," the priest said. "Go on.""The thing is, I'm starting o...

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