Whisky & Culture

Tales from the noose

By Jefferson Chase
If you want to find weirdness in America, a good place to start looking is at the fringes – the panhandles, promontories and peninsulas only tenuously connected to the rest of the US. I should know. I grew up on one.That’s perhaps why I was a sucker for Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which takes place on that curled stretch of strangeness, Cape Cod.The novel opens with a young ex-medicalequipment- salesman, Leonard English, looking for a new beginning after a half-hearted suicide attempt. It doesn’t go well. He gets bombed in a bar and tries to drive to home.Somehow his Volkswagen had climbed up onto a traffic island. The whole thing would have been embarrassing, but he couldn’t 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.” Eventually English does arrive where he’s heading, the Cape’s largest hamlet Provincetown.There, the Kansas native is astonished to discover that most of the residents are gay.And he takes up a fairly bizarre job, working two graveyard shifts a week as a classical music DJ while spending the rest of his time as a private detective.His first assignment is to tail a woman suspected of cheating on her lesbian lover into a night club.English’s brunette got up, snagging her fur jacket along with one hand, and was immediately lost outside the aura of the stagelights...But it turned out she was only visiting the bar behind them to get a drink. As for English, he drank nothing, because he considered himself on duty, until suddenly there was an apparition of a white-coated waiter before him, at which point he crossed the borders of sense, he couldn’t have said why, and waded out into the Scotch-and-water.Wading out into the Scotch-and-water – what a lovely way to describe the start of a bender.To make matters worse, English is smitten by a local woman, who, as he discovers during a night’s surveillance work, is the occasional bedmate of the subject he’s shadowing.He’d been infatuated with Leanna since the night he’d seen her naked and putting her former lover’s hand to her lips, in a dim, warm bedroom, in consolation for their mutual failure. “We’ve got to let this door close,” she’d said to Marla Baker that night, “before any others can open for us.” He wanted to be naked like that with Leanna. He wanted Leanna to put his hand to her lips. He wanted Leanna to say something like that to him.Denis Johnson, a recovering alcoholic and addict who shot to fame with a book of short stories about junkies called Jesus’ Son, knows a thing or to about failure.And Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is a humorous and humane novel about losing one’s way and trying to rediscover it by connecting with others who have done precisely the same thing.