BY MIKE BEEMAN
1991, Penguin Books
Filed Under: Literary, Mystery
Leonard English, the flawed hero of Johnson’s darkly comic novel, moves to Cape Cod’s Provincetown during the winter lull following the suicide attempt suggested in the novel’s title. Beginning one job as a night DJ at the local radio station and another as an assistant to a private detective, English often finds himself wandering Provincetown’s late-night streets, and is quickly caught up in the tight social circle of any off-season tourist town. Throw in a missing artist, a star-crossed love triangle, and an employer’s potential ties to a right-wing survivalist movement in the mountains of New Hampshire, and English soon has more than enough to keep him busy, while Johnson has the beginnings of this engaging, gritty noir novel.
Johnson, who lived in Provincetown for the 1981-1982 residency of the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, knows his setting well (the novel is set in late 1980 and early 1981), and English’s introduction to the casual cross-dressing and multitude of sexual identities Provincetown is known for is entertaining and deftly-handled. Arriving at the town’s main street, his wrecked car towed behind him, English sees: “Three ungainly women–were they men, in bright skirts?–danced in a parody of a chorus line by a tavern’s door, arm 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.” It would be hard to visit Provincetown without having a similar experience.
Although this is Johnson’s fourth novel, the influence of his long background as a poet can be seen in the inventiveness of his prose.
He was a citizen of a country north of Mexico that made no sense; he was an inmate of romance and a denizen of the terrainless geography, a lot more real than the geography on maps, that drifted down from these dark blue oceans to the desert but catching on the invisible peaks of Atlantic City and Cap May and Ocean City and the Southern beach resorts, a geography of heated sand and greased-back hair and surf glowing under a full moon. It was the off-season, but the off-season had no jurisdiction–the place was like a closed carnival–nothing counted but the thrilled ghosts.
Writing like this, with the impulsive digressions, playful language, and vivid imagery Johnson will perfect in later prose, propels the reader along. English’s suicide attempt, hinted at briefly, and his damaged psyche, make for interesting mysteries. Together, these are almost enough.
Unfortunately, even fine writing doesn’t help the novel as the plot begins to unravel, arriving at an ending that is bizarre even for an already strange book, and worse, ultimately disappointing. But this novel is an interesting artifact of sorts, a mid-point in Johnson’s career: although this was his fourth novel he was perhaps still transitioning from poetry to prose and had not yet published Jesus’ Son, the collection of short stories that appeared a year after “Resuscitation” that was so successful he has only recently crawled out from under its shadow nearly twenty years later. While Resuscitation of a Hanged Man might not be read as an early masterpiece, it is certainly an entertaining read, an odd stop on the road map of one of literature’s most celebrated writer’s career.
Similar Reads: Nobody Move and Jesus’ Son also by Denis Johnson, The Rum Diaries by Hunter S. Thompson.