Soul of a Whore and Purvis, by Denis Johnson

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As a writer, Denis Johnson has demonstrated a remarkable ability to polarize. On the one hand he has impressed some of the most prestigious awards committees in the United States. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke, and was also short-listed for the Pulitzer that same year. On the other hand, he has attracted his fair share of scorn. The Atlantic has called Tree of Smoke “astonishingly bad… Johnson has no sense of style, of which words are right for a given context.” Reviewing Train Dreams, the eminent critic James Wood chided Johnson for making it seem as if a “lack of inwardness were itself a literary virtue.” To explain the reason for such strong and opposing reactions among literature experts, one might propose that Denis Johnson is simply a writer who confounds expectations. Whether he delights or offends largely depends on how the reader responds to bafflement. Whatever the case, the same spirit of mystification and fancy which has marked his earlier work is on full display in Soul of a Whore and Purvis, two plays in verse that were published together.

Soul of a Whore describes several episodes in the life of one William Jennings Bryan Jenks, an iterant faith healer and convicted fraudster. The play picks up with Bill Jenks entering a Huntsville, Texas, Greyhound station. This establishment’s sole purpose seems to be ferrying recently paroled felons back to civilization in the form of Houston or Dallas. The characters hanging around this backwater bus terminal are completely madcap. There’s Marsha, a sassy striper; there’s a clerk, whose worldview is summed up by the maxim that “all human beings look like criminals,” and finally there’s an ambiguously Hispanic or Black felon nicknamed HT, which is short for “Hostage Taker.” In addition to the hijinks that one would expect from mixing together such premium cuts of humanity, there are two truly eerie events in the play’s opening act. The first is that John “JC” Cassandra, son of the soon-to-be-executed child-killer Bess Cassandra, walks into the station toting “a wooden cross taller than himself.” Oddly, this is only the second most spiritual event in the first half of the play. Surely the high point of religious weirdness occurs when Marsha is possessed by a demon. Bill Jenks is conscripted to perform an exorcism, which is awkward because he and the demon have actually met before. The faith healer agrees not to condemn the spirit to hell if the latter will reveal his fortune. The demon tells him that he will soon resurrect the dead, and shortly thereafter die. The rest of the play follows Jenks as he, Oedipus-like, tries to avoid his fate, but nevertheless stumbles inexorably toward it.

Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson

One would expect Purvis (a biographical play about a real-life FBI agent Melvin Purvis) to be more grounded than Soul of a Whore. That it is, but not by much. The play opens with Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover sitting in the Oval Office playing gin rummy and talking about how to negotiate with Mormons from outer space. In six additional scenes, the play proceeds backwards in time to 1934, when Purvis came very close to arresting John Dillinger and Lester Gillis, a.k.a. “Baby Face Nelson.” Of these later scenes, one takes place in “a fathomless void,” another in a South Carolina radio station, and two in rural Wisconsin. It turns out that the focus of the play is less on Melvin Purvis than it is on J. Edgar Hoover, who resented Purvis for his triumphs as an investigator. Hoover is portrayed as being far beyond the pale of right-wing extremist. He praises Adolph Hitler every chance he gets, and speaks in soliloquies about the virtues of state control: “My fondest vision is to map the hairs / And very capillaries of the least/ Significant citizen and begin a file. / To tongue and probe the grossness in the soul/ Of every enemy of the American dreams.”

In some sense, Soul of a Whore and Purvis share a common topic: the mythology of the self. Bill Jenks wants to flee the powers of healing, as their use inevitably seems to bring the return of his demon. In fact, he says that he has no real powers of healing, “all I have is a knack for crossing paths\with people just about to heal themselves.” Whereas Bill Jenks wants to run from illegitimate renown and heroic achievement, Purvis is largely indifferent to his deserved fame. Hoover tries to undermine the mythology around Purvis in nearly every scene. As he explains, “We want straight arrows, Boys scouts, true believers.\ What we can’t abide are vivid heroes. If a man should stand too high, well then,\ We’ll lop him at the legs. As I did to Purvis.” To my mind, it is hard to identify a definite conclusion that the two plays elucidate about personal mythology, not that there has to be one. If the works provoke reflection and entertain while doing so, then Denis Johnson has surely done his job. Of course, for some people the zaniness of these plays will simply baffle, or perhaps bore. Soul of a Whore and Purvis is likely to polarize readers in much the same way that his earlier work has. Which is itself somewhat ironic: the public reaction to Denis Johnson, his personal mythology, has shown a predictability that could not be more opposed to the character of his work. I can’t say for sure, but perhaps that’s the true lesson of these two plays: the image of a man and his reality agree but rarely.


Brian Libgober is a writer interested in humorous fiction, screenplays, and literary essays.You can find links to more of his writing at brianlibgober.com More from this author →