Textual Analysis of “Work” by Denis Johnson

A narrator is a young man, an alcoholic and a heroin addict. These addictions have made him engage in petty crime, cruelty, betrayal, and various kinds of loss, like the fight with his girlfriend. The narrator loves to visit Vine, a bar that is located in Lowa town, where he meets with his friends to form alliances.

The story starts with the narrator fighting with his girlfriend. He leaves the Holiday Inn, where they had been staying and using heroin for the last three days. The narrator heads directly to Vine, where he had planned to pass out in a corner. Instead, he meets an old friend, Wayne who asks him if he had any need for making money. The two drive out of town in a sixty dollar Chevrolet, to development of abandoned houses next to a riverbank. These houses had been evacuated due to a flood.

Our narrator thinks that they are going on a burglary job, but Wayne corrects him by saying, “You can’t regulate a forgotten empty house.” Despite Wayne’s words, I can scarcely identify the legality of what the two are about to do. They were to demolish the walls so that they could remove the copper wires which they would sell. The only difference between this job and the one the narrator usually does is that there are no victims, except for the house, which is abandoned, and which we later come to learn used to belong to Wayne at one time. As they tear down the walls of the house, the narrator vomits. The writer wisely chooses these words to illustrate how hard the two men are working so that they can make money.

As they work, they hear a boat passing outside, and they see it pulling a kite, one hundred feet in the air, with a naked redhead woman attached to it. When the work is complete, and they are heading back to town, they pass by an old farmhouse, where the same redhead woman answers the door. This woman turns out to be Wayne’s wife. The narrator comments, “…I’d wandered into a dream that Wayne was having about his wife and his house.” This comment and the fact that Wayne has a wife who seems to be rich, and also that he once owned a house, leaves us to imagine what must have happened to Wayne that made him so desperate to tear down his abandoned house to obtain copper wires to sell.

The narrator had made twenty-eight dollars from the copper he had collected. With this, they head back to Vine, where the narrator’s favorite barmaid pours them free drinks. As they drink and relax, the narrator recalls a weird old time with Wayne. For instance, he remembered when Wayne had accused the biggest, blackest man in the whole of Lowa of cheating in a game of cards, and somehow, miraculously had gotten out of it unharmed. This also reminds him of his first wife.

The story ends with the narrator remarking that he considered that one of the best days of his life. “… we had money…we had the feeling of men who had worked.” The narrator may also have been considering this a good day because he was with his best friend Wayne, and also because the barmaid had generously poured them drinks when they arrived at Vine. The narrator chooses to focus on why this day is important to him and be happy despite the tragic events that have happened.

Denis Johnson has an impressive writing style that makes some parts of his story look less critical while in a real sense they are very significant to the story. An example of this is when the narrator remembers the past. One thinks it is remembrance while it is an indication of what will happen in the future.

As I read the story, I could not help but think that Denis Johnson was creating a picture of what happens in America, in the hoods. This thought came to me because the narrator is involved in petty crimes that usually involve victims and his drug addiction. I think the offense is one of the major themes that the writer focuses on. Even demolishing the house was a crime, only it did not have victims, and was more honest than what the narrator was used to doing.

In conclusion, I would like to commend how Denis Johnson’s work livens one’s imagination. As I read the story, I kept forming images of the narrator and his life. This is one aspect that makes his work very interesting.


Works Cited:

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son: Stories. Macmillan, 1992.

Parrish, Timothy L. “Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: To Kingdom Come.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43.1 (2001): 17-29.