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


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. Cooper, in effect, has only ever written short stories. Cooper's characters, as well as those of Jones and Johnson, move through a fragmented America presum-ably unrecognizable to the majority of their readers. Andrew Levy writes:

From the 1830s and 1840s, when Eastern magazines and newspapers published anecdotes of frontier life gathered from papers and readers in the South and Southwest, the short story has always been a site of discourse in which a comparatively well-educated, middle-class audience could read about the fictionalized lives of the more marginal participants in the American political project. (pp. 108-09)

Strikingly, the characters in the stories of Cooper, Jones and Johnson are unconcerned at their lack of integration into the 'American political project'; their desires lie elsewhere.

In a review of Cooper's books Wrong and Closer, Elizabeth Young wrote: 'Cooper's writing spirals as tightly as DNA around death, perversity, tenderness and desire. Its intensity and excess stem from his attempts to find language that will encompass perverse eroticism and transcendence within a world in which feelings has [sic] been numbed'.[4] That Cooper's work is 'excessive' few readers would contest, but its 'intensity' is considerably less easy to evaluate. Young's attribution of a literary motive to Cooper, her suggestion that she understands him and his work, is characteristic of her appraisals of him. In her comprehensive book Shopping in Space she writes: 'Cooper [. . .] is transcendent, timeless. He has extraordinarily clear unconscious drives and these tend to animate and energize every aspect of his text whether he wishes them to or not.'[5] Significantly, however, she quotes from Cooper's work very infrequently. Even a claim such as the following is unsubstantiated by any textual evidence: 'For all the extremes and grotesqueries of his content, Cooper is a tender, lyrical and very romantic writer' (Shopping, p.257). This may be true, but it must also be taken on trust by the reader unfamiliar with Cooper's work. Still without quotation, Young places Cooper in a tradition: 'His works cannot be described as pornographic in that they are not intended to excite the reader to orgasm, but he certainly has affinities with the French erotic tradition represented by, among others, de Sade, Lautreamont and Bataille.'

James Annesley, in his valuable book Blank Fictions, also links Cooper, among other contemporary American writers, with de Sade and Bataille: 'This familial resemblance is strengthened by a common interest in the kinds of subjects that obsessed William Burroughs, Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade.'[6] However, while the work of Bataille does provide a useful perspective from which to consider Cooper's writing, the comparison with de Sade is less easily maintained. Certainly it is not difficult to envisage a phrase such as the following, from a critique of de Sade's Justine, published in Petites-Affiches in 1792, being applied to Cooper's work in the 1990s: 'If the imagination that produced such a monstrous work is indeed deranged, it must be conceded that it is rich and brilliant of its kind.'[7] Less ambivalently, however, a journalist called Villeterque commented upon de Sade's Les Crimes de l'amour in phrases that could also equally be applied to Cooper's writing: 'A detestable book [. . .]. What possible utility is there in these portraits of crime triumphant? They stimulate the wicked man's maleficent inclinations, they elicit cries of indignation from the virtuous man who is firm in his principles, and in the weak man they provoke tears of discouragement.'[8] A similar reception, however, does not necessarily demonstrate a useful connection. Cooper's writing differs from de Sade's in far more ways than it is like it, and the most crucial difference occurs in their different representations of religion.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, writes of Sade: 'His nature was thoroughly irreligious.'[9] De Beauvoir reads de Sade's work from a Marxist perspective, seeing it as exemplary of materialist philosophy, and in particular of Hobbes's views on nature. Angela Carter, like de Beauvoir, is interested in assessing the principles of exchange that underlie de Sade's writing: 'Pleasure is a hard task-master. The Hundred and Twenty Days at Sodom offers a black version of the Protestant ethic but the profit, the orgasm obtained with so much effort, the product of so much pain and endeavor -- the pursuit of the profit leads directly to hell. To a perfectly material hell.'[10] Although de Beauvoir refers to de Sade as 'thoroughly irreligious' there is too much sacrilege and blasphemy in his work for this to be the case. Maurice Lever writes of de Sade's fascination with sacrilege that it is

rather surprising and more than a little odd in a man who throughout his life denied the existence of God. Blasphemy makes sense only as transgression of a recognized value. The true atheist is not the person who combats God by denying that he exists but the one that never thinks about his existence. Such a contradiction raises doubts about the reality of Sade's atheism. (p. 121)

De Sade's characters are haunted by the loss of God. The scenes of unspeakable degradation, the episodes depicting sequences of escalating atrocities, all point to an absence--the absence of God. By performing the most abominable acts imaginable, de Sade's characters seem to wish to attract the attention and the intervention of a divine agency, to finally provoke Him to show Himself, but all that looks back at them is the impassive face of a totally indifferent universe. It is rage at this absence that animates de Sade's work, but, crucially, the same cannot be said of Cooper's writing.

Cooper never has his characters speak of 'God' in anything but the most sceptical and vague terms. In 'Spaced', the narrator says: 'I mean, I know there's no God. People are only their bodies, and sex is the ultimate intimacy, etc., but it's not enough.'[11] In the first story, 'A Herd', from his first collection of stories, Wrong, which features a child rapist and serial killer, the narrator notes: 'If there was a God . . .'[12] In the final story in the collection, 'Epilogue', the narrator informs us: ' "God" is the adjective I like to use when describing Joe, as it implies beliefs in the years since' (p. 160). In Frisk, the narrator, who is describing in graphic detail the abduction, rape, murder, and disembowelment of a succession of young boys, says of his partners in crime:

'They kills guys for a kick, while for me it's religious or something' (p. 94). The assumption here that religion has an equivalent, 'or something', is a characteristic belief of Cooper's characters, most of whom speak in a similarly vague and imprecise manner. Cooper's characters' attitude to religion is thoroughly contemporary: 'God', 'spiritual', 'religious', and similarly oriented words are just that in Cooper's work -- words. They possess no stable, historical, or theological meaning; they are just nouns and adjectives that can be used as validly in one context as in another. This is not the case in de Sade's writing. De Sade's universe is one in which 'God' is a stable signifier, and transgression has a purpose.

Cooper's work articulates the end of the humanist ideal, the post-Enlightenment drive to place all meaning and all value in the human. In an essay on Bataille, Julia Kristeva writes: 'It is clear today, at a time when our culture is no longer the only center of the world, that since the bourgeois Revolution, the essential adventure of literature has been to take up again, dissolve, and displace Christian ideology and the art that is inseparable from it'.[13] Cooper's work is in the vanguard of this 'project':

Mike dragged Keith down the hall by his hair. He shit in Keith's mouth. He laid a whip on Keith's ass. It was a grass skirt once Mike dropped the belt. Mike kicked Keith's skull in before he came to. Brains or whatever it was gushed out. 'That's that'. [. . .] He thought of offing himself. 'After death, what's left?' he mumbled. He meant 'to do'. Once you've killed someone, life's shit. It's a few rules and you've already broken the best. [. . .] He stared out at the Hudson. He put a handgun to his head. 'Fuck this shit.' His body splashed in the river, drifted off.(Wrong, pp. 63-65)

The authorial intrusion 'He meant "to do"' in this passage emphasizes Mike's lack of belief in an afterlife, while it is also clearly implied that 'the rules' are nothing but cultural constructions and that, therefore, there is absolutely no reason to obey them.

Sex and drugs fuel the lives of even Cooper's most amiable characters. Drugs, usually heroin, but often cocaine, LSD, and amphetamines, are a presence in virtually everything Cooper has written. It is the triviality of life, the encounter with the absurd, that Cooper's characters use drugs to avoid confronting. While amphetamines produce cranked-up sexual extravaganzas, which are never depicted joyously or sensually, LSD is capable of imparting a significance to incidents which they do not actually possess: 'George liked how acid could blow up the flimsiest topic.' 14 Heroin, the most ubiquitous narcotic in Cooper's writing, offers a blissful abdication from the pointlessness of existence: 'Across town, Calhoun sits in his fake-antique desk chair injecting a huge dose of heroin. [. . .] He unties his arm, blinks, and a subsequent rush, though it's more like an ease -- warm, slightly sensual, trancy -- cross-fades the world around him into a vague, distant backdrop as well as it can, for a minute anyway.'[15] However, this ease is purchased at considerable cost: indeed, when humanity has been placed at the centre of existence, the ultimate cost. Cooper's work is actually anti-drug; the absence of sensuous description is reinforced by numerous characters' absolutely unequivocal condemnations of drugs. In Closer, the first-person narrator says: 'We decide to have sex again. As we do, I take occasional snorts from Keith's cocaine supply. Coke creates distances between its users and others, especially other users' (p. 130). In Try, Calhoun, high on heroin, wishes Annie to stay in his room but is unable to communicate this desire: 'Calhoun wants to say, Stay, or something to that effect. Instead, his mouth just sort of falls open, hangs there, a reddish black, roughly triangular slot, at the far back of which are some inventive emotions that don't have a chance against the shit heroin throws over everything in the world except its own . . . whatever. Slam' (p. 70). Later, Calhoun meditates on what heroin has done to him: 'God, things used to seem so potentially amazing re: Josie and love and all that before heroin moved in. [. . .] According to books he'd admired, heroin was supposed to make certain outdated necessities like love, friendship, sex obsolete, and it works in a way. Josie abandoned him, thanks to it' (p. 150).

With the absence of God, humanity is now at the centre of existence, but drugs, often taken to avoid confronting the pointlessness of an absurd world, create an inability in the user to form relationships with other human beings, leaving nothing but the drugs. This cruel circle of despair is central to Cooper's writing and lies behind many of the more bizarre and horrifying incidents in his books. In Frisk, the narrator, Dennis, writes a letter to his old friend, Julian, describing in horrifying detail his abduction, rape, and killing of a number of young boys, some as young as ten or eleven:

I pressed the point of the blade into the base of his throat and made a long, straight slit all the way down his chest, stomach. [. . .] It opened up. I pulled back the halves of white stomach flesh and saw his jumbled yellow guts, which had a weird strong stench. [. . .] I wiped the blood off his ass as best I could, grabbed the calf of his one intact leg and bent it way forward, opening the ass-crack. I licked it out for a long time. [. . .] His hole tasted metallic. I stretched it open and sniffed. The bowels reeked as harshly as I've ever known. I spat on the hole and fucked it brutally, which wasn't easy [. . .]. Stomp the kid's head, I said. Jorg jumped up, did. It was really horrific. The back of the head just caved in. The hair got all goopy with blood and brain tissue or something. Jorg pulled down his pants and dropped some shit on the crushed head. [. . .] God human beings are such garbage bags. (pp. 105-06)

Later in the book it is made clear that this sequence of killings is a fiction, and Young draws a connection between Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho and Frisk: 'Descriptions of murder have exactly the same effect linguistically, whether the murders are "realities" or "fantasies" in the book. They cannot be more or less real according to the plot. It is only fictional convention that makes them seem so. They are all just words' (Shopping, p.257). Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of Cooper's work is precisely this sense that there is nothing left but words. Annesley, who also stresses that these horrifying descriptions are 'fictions', writes of this particular incident: 'There is no sense here that the corpse is any way connected to human life. It is just a thing to be mutilated' (p. 30). However, it could equally be argued that it is precisely because the boy is human that he is a 'thing to be mutilated'. Annesley suggests, with a particular focus on Cooper's fascination with excrement in his work: 'The casual brutality described in Frisk is thus linked to a dehumanizing transaction that generates "dead matter" in economic terms (the commodity), in psychological terms (excrement) and in real terms (murder)' (p. 32). Certainly, 'rimming', homosexual anal sex, and coprophilia are all portrayed as routinely in Cooper's writing as is drug abuse, but as Geoffrey Hartman observes of Walter Benjamin's analysis of Baudelaire: 'Benjamin was tempted to give his analysis at the price of occluding a radically religious perspective. The socioeconomic interpretation is not so much wrong as incomplete.'[16]

Intimations of something mysterious occasionally flicker through the minds of Cooper's characters, as occurs in a coprophiliac incident in Closer, for example, in what is possibly the most memorable image in all of Cooper's writing: 'He did a sharp nosedive and smelled something rancid but rich, like the trace of perfume in a king's tomb. He flattened his face on the butt, sucked and chewed at the hole, but his treasure was stuck in its vault' (p. 80). Bataille writes: 'It is clear, in any event, that the nature of excrement is analogous to that of corpses and that the places of its emission are close to the sexual parts. [. . .] Moreover, life is a product of putrefecation, and it depends on both death and the dungheap.'[17] Specific religious imagery is actually pervasive throughout incidents that focus on the anus. In Try, Ziggy reads a letter Roger has sent him, in which Roger details his fascination with young boys: 'As for what I like to do with them, rimming's the technical term for it. "Eating ass" is a lowlier synonym. Don't think for a moment that this brand of sex has any relationship at all to the "sex" Brice imposes on you. It's far more like worship, if anything' (p.19). In 'Safe', from Wrong, Mark examines himself: 'God knows his ass pays back all eye contact in spades -- creamy white, small and firm, almost no hair in the crack. [. . .] Mark thinks his own even slightly resembles the Shroud of Turin' (p. 122). In Try, Ziggy's gay foster-father, who has been having sex with Ziggy since he was eight years old, says in a list he is compiling of Ziggy's physical attributes: 'Ass: In short, it emitted a stench I'd best leave in absentia, or at least to the discretion of listeners, as you would recognize this smell to which I obliquely refer from your own, well, experiences. Yet I'm positive you would agree that within its rottenness was a flowering so sweet and spicy [. . .] a secret, addictive ingredient that made one inevitably return' (pp. 160-61). What is being 'worshipped', what is 'addictive', is confirmation of humanity's eventual carrion status. In Cooper's world, human beings, who are no longer even connected to one another, who have no spiritual, moral, or intellectual value for one another, are nothing but sacks of blood and shit. In 'Closer', John is having sex with George and thinks: 'That was the weirdest part, feeling how warm and familiar George was and at the same time realizing the kid was just skin wrapped around some grotesque-looking stuff' (Closer, p.7). In 'David', the narrator says: 'That's why I'm happy I'm famous for what I'm so famous for. Being gorgeous, I mean. It helps me believe in myself and not worry that I'm just a bunch of blue tubes inside a skin wrapper, which is what everyone actually is' (Closer, p.22).

Cooper is by no means, however, a completely pessimistic writer and the salvation he does, guardedly, offer is both thoroughly contemporary and almost certainly the reason he is very highly regarded by critics such as Young and Annesley. Young wrote of Closer in her review, for example: 'Like all serious art, Closer falls exquisitely, effortlessly, into the little we know about art, language and the unconscious' (p. 42). Charles E. May writes: 'The short story as a genre has always been more apt to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up. Fictional self-consciousness in the short story does not allow the reader to maintain the comfortable cover-up assumption that what is depicted is real; instead the reader is made uncomfortably aware that the only reality is the process of depiction itself --the fiction-making process, the language act.'[18] Cooper often draws attention to the fiction-making process. In 'My Secret Diary', from Wrong, the narrator notes of a character called Kenny who is dying in hospital: 'No one bothers to visit him, not even me and I made him up' (p. 96). In 'Safe', from the same collection, Rob tries to account for the necrophilia fantasies his gay lover has discovered written down and hidden in his pornography collection: 'He claims it's research for his novel. He says his sentences are like bars on a cage that holds dangerous animals' (p. 109). Later in the same story, the narrator says of his own face: 'It had two poorly made, gentle, and endlessly flickering eyes that would scare me when I was innocent, although I'd carved them myself ' (p. 133). He also writes of another character: 'Mark sleeps his way through the rest of this story' (p. 129). In a writer with Cooper's reputation for violence and nihilism there is something curiously old-fashioned, as well as elitist and disingenuous, in his faith in the importance of art, although it is, of course, the inevitable result of his creation of a thoroughly desacralized world: all we have left is the ability to describe the horrors. The perspective offered by Cooper throughout his work is that of those great brooding eyes in The Great Gatsby; it is as though those eyes were capable of detachedly recording the death throes of a degenerate and rapidly decaying culture.

Denis Johnson's collection of stories, Jesus' Son, takes its name from a line in the Velvet Underground's song 'Heroin': 'When I'm rushing on my run |And I feel just like Jesus' Son.' Like Cooper's characters, Johnson's characters, most of whom are alcoholics, or junkies, or both, inhabit a world where drug abuse is prevalent, but in Johnson's work drugs often form part of a religious experience. In 'Out on Bail' the narrator overdoses on heroin, but he survives:

We lived in a tiny, dirty apartment. When I realized how long I'd been out and how close I'd come to leaving it forever, our little home seemed to glitter like cheap jewelry. I was overjoyed not to be dead. Generally the closest I ever came to wondering about the meaning of it all was to consider that I must be the victim of a joke. There was no touching the hem of mystery, no little occasion when any of us thought -- well, speaking for myself only, I suppose -- that our lungs were filled with light, or anything like that. I had a moment's glory that night, though.[19]

Bataille writes: 'Death is the great affirmer, the wonder-struck cry of life. [. . .] Death reveals life in its plenitude and dissolves the real order.'[20] Johnson's characters often take their sacred, drug-induced moments back into their ordinary, secular lives: 'On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity' (p. 81). At this point in the story, 'Emergency', it is impossible for the reader to tell if the vision is the result of drugs, or if the drugs have given the narrator a mode of perception he is now utilizing quite soberly. As occurs throughout Cooper's work, Johnson's characters are often preoccupied with the physicality of the body. In 'Emergency' a hospital orderly who has been mopping blood from the floor of the operating room says to the narrator: 'There's so much goop inside of us, man, [. . .] and it all wants to get out' (p. 70). In 'Steady Hands' a character says that when looking back at life all that is recognizable is a series of wrecked cars, with people in them 'who are just meat now, man' (p. 133). Drugs and alcohol offer a means of transcending this reductivism, but the price exacted for the brief transcendence is a constant yearning for a consistently less material universe. Although Johnson's writing employs conventional Christian imagery: 'It felt like the moment before the Saviour comes' (p. 51), this less material universe is also reconstructed as an innocent moment from the past: 'For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after' (p. 77).

Thom Jones has, thus far, published three collections of short stories: The Pugilist At Rest (1993), Cold Snap (1995), and Sonny Liston Was A Friend of Mine (1998). Throughout his work the attitude to religion is ambivalent, but, like Johnson, he conflates religion with drug abuse. In a story from his second collection, Wilhelm Blaine thinks: 'There was such a thing as religious toxicity.'[21] Unlike Cooper's and Johnson's characters, however, Jones's characters are really only interested in prescription drugs. In a review of Cold Snap, Tom Deveson wrote, himself conflating drugs, literature, and religion: 'Many of the cast are doctors, but they share the leading roles with proprietary drugs. Like the names of defeated princes in Tamburlaine, lithium, Librium, Prozac, amphetamine and Dexedrine recur in a sonorous litany.'[22] Cold Snap is surely unique in that the author's acknowledgements virtually conclude with these words: 'Thanks respectively to Wyeth/Ayerst Laboratories and Stuart Pharmaceutical for further expanding that narrow channel of joy by manufacturing Effexor and Elavil; drugs so good they feel illegal' (p. 228). Jones's first-person and third-person narrators are invariably eloquent on the effects of drugs and, in addition, Jones invests descriptions of drugs with an aesthetic sensibility nowhere to be found in the other writers' work. In 'I Need A Man To Love Me', Jones writes, in phrases as sensuous as any to be found in Huysman's A Rebors, or Baudelaire's Les Paradis Artificiels:

She looked at her pills: her cache of Librium, glossy black and green capsules--five hundred or more; Valiums in blue; Xanax all pearly white; red and grey Darvons; Ludiomills in good-morning-sunshine orange; tricoloured Tuinal in red, redder, and baby blue; drab brown Triaval in the 4-10 proportion; there were pastel orange methadone diskets (just two); some chalk white meprobomate in the generic--wipe you out for sure; multicolored Dexedrine spansules, passionate purple Parnate; there were her Nembutals, and the sea-green, let's-do-the-job-up-right Placidyl gel caps (Baby Dills) --the pills and capsules suddenly became an object of immense beauty, a treasure. It was better than unearthing a pirate captain's sea chest filled with glittering gold doubloons, shimmering jewels: emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and chips of anthracite coal --better because pills did things. Drugs altered sensations. (p. 190)

As often occurs in Johnson's work, characters in Jones's stories are often unclear on issues of religious attribution: 'I don't know. I mean I don't know if it was all the drugs I was doing or if I was just plain crazy. I heard voices. God talked to me' (p. 98). In 'The Pugilist At Rest', the epileptic first-person narrator considers the 'reality' of his religious visions: 'I cannot help but wonder sometimes if my vision of the Supreme Reality was any more real than the demons visited upon schizophrenics and madmen. Has it all been just a stupid neurochemical event? Is there no God at all? The human heart rebels against this.'[23] The same narrator observes that epilepsy is 'called the "sacred sickness"' (p. 24), and Ad Magic, to whom God may or may not sometimes speak, is also an epileptic, while in 'Unchain my Heart', the female first-person narrator uses epilepsy to convey an intensity that is specifically sexual: 'He fucks me so hard I have orgasms like epilepsy' (p. 117). Jones, like Cooper and Johnson, is often drawn to the corporeality of the body:

A few seconds later, I heard the swoosh of an RPG rocket, a dud round that dinged the lieutenant's left shoulder before it flew off in the bush behind him. It took off his whole arm, and for an instant I could see the white bone and ligaments of his shoulder, and then red flesh of muscle tissue, looking very much like fresh prime beef, well marbled and encased in a thin layer of yellowish-white adipose tissue that quickly became saturated with dark-red blood. What a lot of blood there was. (The Pugilist, p.14)

Many of Jones's characters are dissatisfied with moral (cultural) directives; they yearn for experiences that reject the corporeality of the body and its eventual and final death. However, a similar circle of despair to that which can be seen in Cooper's understanding of heroin addiction in his writing is also discernible in Jones's work. Drugs and alcohol are sometimes used by his characters to attain a higher, or at least altered, state of being. In 'Way Down Deep in the Jungle', the protagonist, the alcoholic Dr Koestler, allows his pet baboon, George Babbitt, to drink whisky: 'When he saw the look of sheer ecstasy that came over Babbitt's Lincolnesque face, he let the simian drink on, convinced that the animal was undergoing something holy. And perhaps he was, but after the initial rush of intoxication, Babbitt made the inevitable novice drinker's mistake of trying to amplify heaven' (Cold Snap, p. 47). In a review of The Pugilist At Rest, Stephen Amidon wrote: 'Whether it is the sybaritic surgeon in Wipeout, or the editorial assistant with a penchant for scuba divers and fighter pilots in Unchain My Heart, the men and women who populate these stories are all looking for a way out, a psychic jolt that will rocket them beyond stark reality.'[24] Invariably, however, the shredded sensibilities of Jones's characters require sedation, not elation. Jones's characters are as often middle-class professionals as they are Vietnam veterans or boxers, but all of them are connected by their desire, above all, for order, not transcendence, and by their concomitant addiction to prescription drugs, which, significantly, create a thoroughly predictable mood in the addict. Prescription drugs rarely 'amplify heaven' in Jones's work, despite the sensuous descriptions of them; they simply maintain the status quo, at the expense of a crippling addiction.

The voice of the contemporary liberal humanist can be found in Jones's writing: 'You could treat people right without fearing or trying to please God. You could do it simply because it was human to do it, because love was a more ennobling tendency than hate, and if you were lucky, maybe you could live with yourself and sleep nights' (Cold Snap, p.24). In the powerful story 'I Want to Live', prescription drugs, particularly pain killers, are offered as a replacement for God: there is no afterlife, the traditional consolations of Christianity are worthless, but the act of dying itself has been made considerably easier by the science that has displaced God. A religious vocabulary is as much in evidence in Jones's work as it is in that of Cooper and Johnson, but as often occurs in Cooper's work, however, the precise meaning Jones's characters assign to words taken from the traditional religious lexicon is far from clear. In 'Dynamite Hands', the narrator, a boxer, notes: 'Boxing, you do it right and it's a holy activity' (Cold Snap, p. 208). Later, he says of a convict he meets in a Mexico City jail, whose entire abdomen was covered in razor slashes: 'I saw that he was a holy man' (p. 225). In 'Rocket Man' the boxer, Prestone, says of his trainer, Moore: 'That man is holy! That man is consecrated' (The Pugilist, p.224).

In a review of Tobias Wolff's collection of stories, The Night in Question, Robert Stone argues that Wolff's writing is 'fundamentally religious [in] nature.'[25] Stone further suggests that, in addition to the presence of redemption as a motif in Wolff's work: 'Another element that decisively demonstrates the religious element in Wolff's work is the repeated rendering of his characters' pathetic attempts to act morally.' Morality and religion, however, are not synonyms, although Cooper and Jones, particularly, often construct an equivalence between the two words. Both Cooper and Jones create a range of characters who seem able to envisage God only as a prescriptive presence, or absence, not as a supernatural or numinous force. They are contemporary writers not just in their graphic depictions of sexuality and drug abuse, but also in their belief that the most important, indeed the only, element of religion is the moral. Both writers also consistently imply that while transcendence is desirable it is unattainable without narcotics, and equally impossible to recapture without them. Only Johnson's characters have retained a sense of the centrality of the irrational or supernatural to religion, and they are often able to integrate a sacred experience into their predominantly secular lives.

[1] The New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles E. May (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994), p. 133.

[2] Robert Stone, Bear &His Daughter (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), p. 24.

[3] See, with specific reference to the American short story, Andrew Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[4] 'The King of Cool', Guardian, 12 April 1994,p.42.

[5] Shopping in Space: Essays On American 'Blank Generation' Fiction (London: Serpent's Tail, 1992), p. 240.

[6] James Annesley, Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel (London: Pluto Press, 1998)p.2.

[7] Cited in Maurice Lever, Sade: A Biography, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994)p.384.

[8] Lever, Sade: A Biography,p.510.

[9] 'Must We Burn Sade?', introduction to the Marquis de Sade, The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, trans. by A. Wainhouse and R. Seaver (London: Arrow, 1991), p. 42.

[10] The Sadeian Woman (London: Virago, 1979)p.148.

[11] Dennis Cooper, Frisk (London: Serpent's Tail, 1991), pp. 69-70.

[12] Wrong (London: Serpent's Tail, 1992)p.8.

[13] 'Bataille, Experience and Practice', in On Bataille, ed. by Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons (Albany: State University of New York, 1995), p. 237.

[14] Dennis Cooper, Closer (London: Serpent's Tail, 1989), p. 47.

[15] Dennis Cooper, Try (London: Serpent's Tail, 1994), p. 2.

[16] Cited in Douglas Tallack, The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, Form and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 158.

[17] George Bataille, 'Death', in The Bataille Reader, ed. by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 242.

[18] 'Chekhov and the Modern Short Story', in The New Short Story Theories, p.216.

[19] Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son (London: Faber, 1992), p. 41.

[20] 'Sacrifice, The Festival and the Principles of the Sacred World', in The Bataille Reader, p.212.

[21] Thom Jones, Cold Snap (London: Faber, 1997), p. 19.

[22] Sunday Times, 16 June 1996,p.9.

[23] Thom Jones, The Pugilist At Rest (London: Faber, 1994), p. 27.

[24] 'In The Red, White and Blue Corner', Sunday Times, 17 April 1994,p.46.

[25] Robert Stone, 'Finding Mercy in a God-Forsaken World', TLS, 15 November 1996,p.23.
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Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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