George Jones– pretty much anything
My good friend M.Z. and I are in roughly the twentieth year of an argument about the writer Denis Johnson. Not about the quality of his writing (because who would argue that? This is Angels Denis Johnson; “Emergency” Denis Johnson– still, for my money, the single greatest American short story about youth and drugs, because it isn’t, in the end, about either; “It was one of those moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back” Denis Johnson).
The argument goes like this:
To M.Z., DJ is a towering genius at least in part because his compassion for the desperate, the addicted, the homeless, the drunken, and the homicidally fucked-up knows no bounds.
Whereas I think he’s a towering artist in spite of precisely the same thing. That doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for anyone suffering through any of the above. But I don’t consider boundless sympathy for the self-destructive a given, and I don’t think self-destructive characters automatically make for significant or wrenching art. Or maybe I’m drawn more to– and moved more by — what’s being destroyed, and what might be saved, and what the collateral damage will be, than I am to the verisimilitude of the process of destruction.
Which is probably why I’ve never quite gotten George Jones.
He pops up at a critical moment in the first chapter of Motherless Child, when Natalie realizes that the Whistler– legendary itinerant musician, mysterious figure, the relentless monster at this book’s heart, though of course she doesn’t know that yet –is in the otherwise soulless suburban bar with her, is in fact walking out onto the stage to join the nondescript pub musician toiling away at the mic. Music-lover that she is, Natalie immediately begins speculating on what the Whistler will play.
Something heartbreaking, surely. Preternaturally sad, because why else would that lo(oow-uh-oow-o)nesome whistle blow?
And the first idea that crosses her mind is, “Some George Jones wallow.”
If that were me talking, there’d be an implied sting in that tail. A hint of derision with my “wallow.” There might be for Natalie, too, wallowing most decidedly not being her game.
But even more than me– and just because I feel like I can hear the coke snorting, the drunken weeping, the wife-beating and barely suppressed rage at nothing in particular in the singer doesn’t mean I’m immune to the voice, or that almost any George Jones song at the right unguarded moment can’t rattle me right down to my defiantly self-determinant roots– Natalie would thrill to the experience of just being there, getting to hear. And the moment is certainly an unguarded one for her, anyway.
Of course, the Whistler doesn’t sing George Jones.
Not sad enough.
Or. No. Not wild enough.
After all. I didn’t name him The Whiner.