The Art of the Sentence: Denis Johnson

Jaimie Quatro

We here at Tin House love sentences. They’re why we do what we do. We often come across sentences so good we read them over and over again; and there are the ones that demand to be read aloud to everyone in the office; and then there are the ones we have to take a walk after finishing.

We asked some of our favorite contributors to tell us about the sentences that stopped them in their tracks, stirred in them something primal and real, and urged them to dance.

We call this feature The Art of the Sentence.  It’s how we like to pass the time. And how we hope you will, too.

-Cheston Knapp

“I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.”

-Denis Johnson, “Dirty Wedding”

I’ve read Jesus’ Son cover-to-cover a dozen times, but every time I reach this sentence – the opening paragraph of “Dirty Wedding” – I’m stunned all over again.  The prose is rich with information without a tincture of exposition, primarily because Johnson lets his form do the driving. The parenthetical interruption between “people” and “actually lived”–and within the parentheses, the further pause between the em-dashes (the brilliance of placing that clause between the article and noun!)–mimics the jump-cut flash of images passing the train.  Read the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the rhythm and pulse of the elevated tracks—structure informing content, music suited to subject matter. “Dropped away,” “wiped away,” “erased by,” “dropped down” – throughout the collection the narrator moves along in a continual present tense, surreal scenes starting out and then, as quickly as the narrator can relate them, disappearing, or transforming into the lineaments of reality.  Then there are unexpected word choices:  the man is “spooning soup toward his face” (he could be “eating soup,” after all); it’s the kitchen that’s “dirty naked,” not the person.  To tamp down such raw physical detail while maintaining the overall hallucinatory quality of the narrator’s drug-and-alcohol-induced experience—and to do it in a single sentence!— this strikes me as near-miraculous every time.

Jamie Quatro’s story “Caught Up” can be found in the latest issue of Tin House. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of 2010 fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and she holds graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary and Bennington College. She lives with her husband and children in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area, where she’s at work on a story collection and novel.