Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse

Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse

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by Denis Johnson
     
 

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Two plays--hilarious and searing in equal measure--by one of our most essential and original authors



In his poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, the National Book Award-winning author Denis Johnson has explored the story of America--especially of the West, land of self-made men and self-perpetuating myths--with searing honesty and

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Overview

Two plays--hilarious and searing in equal measure--by one of our most essential and original authors



In his poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, the National Book Award-winning author Denis Johnson has explored the story of America--especially of the West, land of self-made men and self-perpetuating myths--with searing honesty and genuine sympathy. These two plays, written in verse at once hypnotic and clear, confirm his position as one of our great verbal stylists and a literary conscience for our times.


In Soul of a Whore, a lively cast of characters--faith healers, pimps, strippers, actual demons--converge, with unexpected hilarity, as Bess Cassandra awaits execution for the murder of her infant daughter. Purvis's seven reverse-chronological scenes catalog the fall and rise of Melvin Purvis, the G-man who brought down John Dillinger and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Johnson takes us from Washington's back rooms to a Midwestern cornfield, dramatizing the seductive allure of power and our own human capacity for both pettiness and grace.

In these furiously entertaining, occasionally terrifying works, Johnson chronicles and questions America's myths, heroes, and everyday realities with verve and elegance, revealing himself once again to be at the height of his linguistic and insightful powers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The raw power of poetically concentrated passion . . . [Soul of a Whore] is a resonant fulfillment of the promise in [Johnson's] earlier work . . . [This is] Johnson's best constructed and most evocatively passionate outing yet.” —Robert Hurwitt, San Francisco Chronicle

“Johnson has found a new speed, or a new style, for his age-old theme of hell, and it's a good, rare thing to watch a modern poet write so well for the stage.” —Michael Scott Moore, SF Weekly

Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse comprises Johnson's third- and fifth-ever attempts at playwriting, but his enthusiasm for experimentation is present and overriding, and it reads vividly.” —Jillian Goodman, Slate

“These plays are everything you’d expect and want from a dramatic creation written by Denis Johnson—grit, poetry, passionate prose, a host of devilishly dirty characters steeped in backbreaking honesty, and a whirlwind ride that takes us to the polar reaches of the human experience.” —Emily Temple, Flavorwire

“‘Soul’ inhabits a world of hookers and hoodlums and murderers and executioners. The tale is both hallucinatory and immediate, hilarious and horrifying. It moves from the god-forsaken way station to a hospital ward to an execution chamber, where one Bess Cassandra is awaiting her death for ‘vehicular infanticide.’ Along the way, it asks questions about the death penalty, the justice system, Christianity, and morality . . . These drifters and derelicts are the sort of folks who pop out of the pages of Johnson’s fiction, and in writing for the stage, Johnson creates down-and-out characters with an uncommon attention to language.” —Patti Hartigan, The Boston Globe

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374709655
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
06/05/2012
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
1,179,821
File size:
0 MB

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Soul of a Whore and Purvis

Two Plays in Verse


By Denis Johnson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Denis Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70965-5


CHAPTER 1

Part I

Dark stage.


HT's voice [sings]: Let the Midnight Special
Shine a light on you
Pinpoint spot lights a sign, overhead left: "SURPLUS STORE."

WOMAN [O.S.]: Guys, I need your papers of parole
And state ID to cash that check, OK?

MAN [O.S.]: Dump your whites up there on the second level.
The second level is where you dump your whites.
Use the changing room, sir, will you please?

WOMAN [O.S.]: Your middle name is printed on that check,
Then go ahead and spell your whole name out.

Sign the back side: first name, middle name
If middle name is printed on your check,
And then your last name; and I want your writ
Of discharge or parole certificate
And your official Texas state ID;
Or else your check will not be honored here.

HT's voice [sings]: Let the Midnight Special
Shine a ever-lovin' light on you
Lights up: Greyhound station in Huntsville, Texas. Plastic
pews; standing ashtrays; Coke machine; door to Surplus Store;
ticket counter; pay phone.

CLERK behind the counter, silent. On the counter a handbell.
He bangs it when the mood strikes. Sometimes furtively he nips
clear liquid from a screw-top canning jar. He's got a little radio.

MASHA talks on the phone. Very brief shiny blue sleeveless
dress and big blue platform sandals with white straps. White
sunglasses; great big blue-and-white purse.

HT, a black man: wants the phone; needs change.

HT [sings]: Shine a mothaluving light on you ...

MASHA [on phone]: I won't come back till you
stop making me—
OK! Come on!—you just come zooming up
To Huntsville like some crazed, spawning salmon:
I'm on my bus before you hit the highway.

...I just don't want to. Things like that, they aren't—
Huh-uh, not demeaning, just, it's more—
Unnatural. I mean, for me. Or, well,
For anyone. And I'm not even sure
I really do it, even when it happens,
I mean in any verifi able ..."Uh!"
"Uh uh uh uh uh!"
Can't you get that worked on, ugly man?

Can't they drill your head and fix that stutter?
... Your bank account is real. I realize that.
I truly just don't have the gift. I don't.
There's such a thing as luck, you know—like isn't
Luck what everybody's betting on?

Wait a minute, got to feed the baby,
Baby's hungry—[to HT] Sir, it's gonna be
A little while—OK?—'cause I'm addressing
Certain urgent business—so, could you—?

HT: Man get crazy when his bus don't come.

MASHA [on phone]: If you can hear me, I'm depositing—
HT: I just live in Willard, but the bus
Won't go there. Got to go see Houston first.

MASHA: "You ever get to Houston,
Boy, you better walk right."

HT: I will. I do. I got no sheet in Houston.

MASHA: It's just a song.

HT: I never been arrested
Any way or shape or form in Houston.

MASHA: It's just a song. It's just a song.

HT: Lead Belly.

Sure. I know the song. But I'm just saying.
—The guys get outa prison yet today?

CLERK: At noon, like always. Bus already left.

HT: Uh-oh. The Houston bus?

CLERK: The Dallas bus.

MASHA [on phone]:—No, no! I didn't say the Greyhound station!
My cous in—good ol' Cousin Gus is coming,
Not the bus. I wouldn't go by Greyhound
Ever except in abject desperation!
Meanwhile, an old woman in black enters from street door.

GRANNY BLACK: Hot! Hot! And while I fry in my own fat
I hear my dead relations singing in Heaven.
I ain't a-gonna drive on that highway!
You don't get me behind no chariot wheel!
Ninety miles of carburetors steaming
Like cauldrons in a line from here to Dallas.
Is it carburetors, now? Or radios?
Or what's the things that steams, where you put water?

CLERK: That'd be the radiator.

GRANNY BLACK: Radiator!
Well!—unless you like that funny music,
I guess you'd best not wet your radio.
This is eighteen twenty-five for one
To Dallas. I won't give a penny more.
They like to raise the rates with every breath
They drag, and someone's got to hold the line.

MASHA: ... No! It ain't the money! Money stinks!
I haven't got the gift! I haven't got the power!
Just a minute, let me feed this thing—
[Deals with coins, etc.]
Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? HELLO!
My call is what? Well! You sound sweet as pie!
You sound just like my mother, operator—
I want my dollar ten, or you can kiss
My Rebel ass.—Hung up on by a robot!
This is how the vandalism starts!

CLERK: Now, honey, don't molest my telephone.
[To HT] No. Don't ring the bell. The bell's for me.

HT: Lemme have it all in quarters, please.

CLERK: Try the change machine.

HT: It doesn't work.

MASHA [offering coins]: Two bucks for a fistful. Gamble.

HT: Thanks.
You didn't see a guy ...

CLERK: A dozen guys.
A couple dozen guys. The usual—
You know. The Dallas took the most of 'em.
The usual recidivists in transit.

HT: You see a guy, a white guy, maybe looked
A little not so much a criminal?

CLERK: All human beings look like criminals.

HT goes to the phone.

GRANNY BLACK: Hot! Hot! Hear how this poor old woman sizzles!
I pity the crappies and crawdads on account
I feel now what it hurts like to be cooked.

CLERK: It's twenty dollars fifty cents to Dallas.

GRANNY BLACK: Eighteen twenty-five. No more, no less.

CLERK: It doesn't work that way.

GRANNY BLACK: It used to do!
It used to was a twenty-dollar bill
Counted!—once upon a memory.
I'll sit down here and let you ponder that ...
I'll let you ponder where the whole world went ...

MASHA: I'm not worried if he's after me.
By now he's probly halfway out of Texas,
Blazing a trail for Huntsville, Alabama.

CLERK: Huntsville was named after Huntsville. You knew that.

MASHA: Uh—no. I didn't. But it stands to reason.

CLERK: After the one in Alabama. That's
The explanation for all the confusion, see?

HT [on phone]: Hello? It's all—It's jammed. Hello?
Completely.
Fine. You busted it. Are you content?

MASHA: I'm just as happy as a clam in shit.

HT: O yeah? I think you got that saying wrong.

MASHA: I think you never saw a clam in shit.

HT: When's the Houston come?

CLERK: It comes as scheduled.

HT: Scheduled when?

CLERK: It's not that type of schedule.
It's theoretical. Four a day.

HT: In theory.

CLERK: No, the vehicles themselves are real,
But all the rest is veiled in mystery
Because from here to goodness idiots
Are tearing up the road and moving it
West eleven inches. Traffic's stuck
For hours at a time in all directions:
Miles and miles of stationary drivers
Contemplating this minute adjustment.

HT: Sound like the joint.

CLERK: It kinda does, at that.

HT: You been inside?

HT gets himself a Coke.

MASHA: ... He'll hop the barricades.
He'll ride the back roads and the shoulder, then
He'll drive on top of all the other cars.
He will. He's on his way. I get no rest.

HT: Gah-dam, gah-dam, gah-dam!

CLERK: Excuse me, sir.

HT: I think it might be eating me alive.

CLERK: Crazy folks are not allowed in here.

HT: Crazy folks are too allowed in here.
Is this the Greyhound stop in Huntsville, Texas?—
Crazy folks get born and die in here.

CLERK: I know you, sir. They call you Hostage Taker.

HT: Yeah, yeah, it's good to see you, good to see you.
Man, the bus don't come and the bus don't come.
Man, I got to get on down the road.
Man, this whole block used to jump with gypsy
Hot-shot cabs'll take you there right now
For twenty bucks they're gonna fly to Houston,
Dallas, anyplace on earth—and they
Got reefer, they got beer, they got tequi la—

CLERK: I thought they sprung you couple months ago.

HT: Sooner or later all God's chillun be free.
[Raises his Coke]
"Wardens, jailers, presidents and kings—
They all must bow to calendars and clocks."

CLERK: Then what puts you in Huntsville not a block
From where you did hard time? Guilt? Or nostalgia.
Or some concoction of the two.

HT: Touché!

CLERK: Touché?

HT: Touché! That's what you say! You say
"Touché!" when someone jabs you with a word.

CLERK: I jabbed you what? I jabbed—

HT: You see ...
You dig ... You don't begin your day with things
Like taking hostages on the agenda.
"Things to Do: Do NOT take hostages."
You march inside, extend your weapon towards
The various faces, and receive the money.
PO-lice DO not COME sahROUND-ing you!
Megaphones and telephones and shit!
And no one's hurt! And NO ONE GOES TO PRISON.
...I'm waiting on a guy. But I can't wait.

CLERK: If you can't wait, I guess you're better off
To don't. So see you later, Hostage Taker.

MASHA: I thought you said the bus—you live in—where?

HT: I never tell the truth. It's too confusing.
You wanna get a drink? Or take a walk?
Something? Maybe feel the feelings of
The outside world? Fresh air?

MASHA: No thanks, I'm good.

HT: I didn't mean—

MASHA: I know.

HT: I didn't mean—

MASHA: But I'm just comfortable. I'm good right here.

HT exits through Surplus Store.

CLERK: Now, there's a guy got bubbles in his brain.
... Well, looky here: The show's not over, folks.
BILL JENKS enters from the street door.

MASHA: You are sucking on me with your eyes.
You're staring like a laser beam.

BILL JENKS: My wife was here
She'd read my mind and kill me on the spot.
... Did I hear someone singing, while ago?

CLERK: Just some bubble-brain with vocal cords.
BJ offers MASHA a smoke. She ignores it; finds her own.

BILL JENKS: You hang around the Greyhound all the time?

MASHA: Don't mistake me, hon.

BILL JENKS: For what?

MASHA: For what you think.

BILL JENKS: And what am I thinking?

MASHA: That's for me to know.
She lights his smoke.

BILL JENKS [smoking]: I'm ready to believe in God again!

MASHA: Could you, like, hold the revival over there?

BILL JENKS: The gods combust our dreams for sport and suck
The fumes. Our spirits serve as censers.

MASHA: Shit.
You dudes are never right when you come out.
[Smoking] What's a censer?

BILL JENKS: It's the—hell, you know—
Those things they burn the incense in at Mass?
Come on, don't kid around—a name like Masha—

MASHA: From where do you know my name?

BILL JENKS: From here.
I overheard. Your lovely back was turned.
You breathed your name into the telephone.

MASHA: That was my boss! I didn't breathe a-tall!

BILL JENKS: Masha's Russian. You could be Orthodox: They're always swinging censers.

MASHA: Let 'em swing,
'Cause I ain't Russian! I'm from Texas, son.

BILL JENKS: So where'd you get the Masha from? Odessa?

MASHA: Hell if I know. It's my name, is all ...
You're not from Texas.

BILL JENKS: No, ma'am. Mississippi.
But I was mostly raised in California.
Don't get me wrong, I love you Texas women.

MASHA: How long were you in prison for? This time?

BILL JENKS: What makes you think I've been incarcerated?

MASHA: The checkered pants, the polo shirt, those big
Enormous shoes, no belt, that stubbly head—
The outa prison used-up fashion show.

BILL JENKS: They don't have threads like these in prison, doll.
Except the shoes. And shoes like these are common.

MASHA: You cashed your fifty at the Surplus Store
And dumped your whites and bought the nearest thing.
Last week the streets were full of guys with boot-camp
Haircuts sporting stripèd Ban-Lon shirts
And almost iridescent green bell-bottoms.
Pouring rain outside, and here they come,
This mob of palpitating free men kind of
Trailing a verdant dribble off their cuffs.
Their T-shirts shrank right on them as we watched.

BILL JENKS: "Palpitating"? "Verdant"? What a smarty.
"What's a censer?" What a smarty pants.
Ain't you a genius. Where'd you go to school?

MASHA: I didn't go. I didn't need to go.

BILL JENKS: You knew it all.

MASHA: Enough to not get busted.

BILL JENKS: But not to not divide infinitives.

MASHA: Fucked-up grammar is not a crime in Texas.
He smokes. Offers one. She ignores it.

BILL JENKS: They cost a buck apiece inside ... How much are you?

MASHA: I dance. I'm not for sale. I dance.

BILL JENKS: You strip.

MASHA: I'm not exactly a ballerina, no.

BILL JENKS: But you done quit the life. Or so I heard.

MASHA: Heard when? When I was on the telephone?

BILL JENKS: Yeah, and I could smell the putrid karma
Percolating in the interaction,
And I say this: Whatever's going on
With you and him can only improve with distance.

MASHA: I didn't see you around. Just prisoners.

BILL JENKS: One was me. And then I bought the outfit ...
Pack of smokes ...and we're not prisoners.
We're out—How do!—We move among you now.

MASHA: What were you in for? Dealer? Killer?—Rapist.

BILL JENKS: Victim of religious persecution.

MASHA: Jewish, huh?

BILL JENKS: I was irregular.

MASHA: And went to prison for it?—What'd you do,
Diarrhea all over somebody?

BILL JENKS: My conduct was irregular. That is, With money.

MASHA: Sure. You stuck somebody up.

BILL JENKS: I was convicted of commingling funds.
It means a stick-up with a ballpoint pen.

MASHA: Do tell. Co-mingling funds. Is that Chinese?

BILL JENKS: Lady, is that the way you play your game?
Hang around the Greyhound lookin' down,
Makin' fun of other folks's clothes—
And Masha is a Russian nickname, sis.

MASHA: No, it's not. "Sis" is a nickname. Masha's
What I got at birth. My name is Masha.

BILL JENKS: ... Mar -sha—!

MASHA: Yeah ...

BILL JENKS: Well, I like Masha better.

MASHA: When I dance I'm Fey or I'm Yvette
Or I'm Nicole and then I'm naked.

BILL JENKS: Naked!

MASHA: I start out topless and proceed from there,
And logic does the rest.

BILL JENKS: I'll bet it does.
I'll bet it ends up running down the road
Yodeling and firing off both guns.

MASHA: You're pretty slick with words.

BILL JENKS: Ain't but a tic.

MASHA: I'll bet your mouth gets you in trouble. Lots.

BILL JENKS: And where would someone fresh from prison go
To watch you executing logic so
Ruthlessly and gracefully? To Heaven?
Or someplace even higher?

MASHA: Try the Texas.

BILL JENKS: The Texas Bar?

MASHA: The Big-As-Texas.

BILL JENKS: ... O!—
Sylvester's Big-As-Texas Topless Lounge!
I guess I wasn't off by very much:
"Just fifty miles from Houston and right next
To Paradise on Highway 35."
How do you get to and from? You got a car?

MASHA: No, but I can always catch a ride.

BILL JENKS: I do believe you can. I guarantee it.
And what's your next stop? Dallas?

MASHA: I'm not sure.

BILL JENKS: Not sure?

MASHA: I need to pick the proper move.
It's heads or tails, and devil take the hindmost.

BILL JENKS: Sounds like you better grab the first thang smokin'.

MASHA: The tips were big as Texas—then the road
Got all torn up, and now it's like a tomb,
And I got Peter Lorre for a boss, who just
Keeps jacking up the price of doing business.

BILL JENKS: I guess that happens all the time.

MASHA: Huh-uh,
It ain't what you imagine. It's much weirder,
Wilder—unnatural—and no, no, no,
It still ain't what you're thinking. It's not sex.
... You mentioned a wife.

BILL JENKS: O! Yeah. I probly did.
And did I mention that her lawyers mentioned
A divorce?

MASHA: It wasn't really necessary.

BILL JENKS: You turn me on. I think you make me wild.
Smart women get me going. Thus my downfall.

MASHA: Step right up and blame it on a woman ...
How long did Texas guard your purity?

BILL JENKS: One and one-sixth years. That's fourteen months.
—And I went in there in a monastic spirit:
I've been voluntarily celibate,
And celibate, God willing, I'll remain.

MASHA: Well, you've been talking like your holy vow
Escaped your mind and pulled your trousers down.

BILL JENKS: Matter of fact it did. Wow. Fourteen months.
... I like the way your heel's a little dirty.
I like the way you point your toes. I like
That silvery sort of robot-colored sort of
Sequined toenail polish.

MASHA: You are sick!

BILL JENKS: Wow. Just the sight of your foot makes me drool.
Your human foot. Wow. Fourteen months locked up.

MASHA: Aren't there any humans with feet in there?

BILL JENKS: Humans? Yeah. Humans too goddamn human:
Misused and violent Negroes, and abused
And violent Texas crackers, and confused
Bilingual Meskin desperados—also
Violent—and sweet, retarded boys
Who can't recall the violence they've done ...
Deranged mulattos, and mestizos scrambled
In their natural brains ...
Saints and suckers stirring in a stew
Of HIV and hepatitis C and walls
And years. And, yes: I guess they've all got feet.
But none of them ever dreamed of a foot like yours.

MASHA: You're not a lover, are you ...You're a preacher ...

BILL JENKS: Fourteen months exactly to the minute,
The same as Elvis did in Jailhouse Rock.
[He goes to the counter.]
Got me a voucher for the Dallas bus.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Soul of a Whore and Purvis by Denis Johnson. Copyright © 2012 Denis Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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