Category Archives: Suggested Readings

Denis Johnson’s Last Line: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”


“There’s nothing wrong with me”—I’m surprised I let those words out.
But it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them.
Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Now what does that mean?”
“I’m not ready to go into all that,” I said. A yellow bird fluttered close to my face, and my muscles grabbed. Now I was flopping like a fish.

from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”

I first heard of Denis Johnson in 1985 when a co-worker told me her sister had dated him. He was a poet she said. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, a million miles away from the world of Denis Johnson. A few years later in graduate school, Padgett Powell had us read Johnson’s first novel, Angels. It was a gritty underbelly kind of story, like glimpsing into a bus station and seeing someone with tinfoil on his head. Later, I tuned into his other novels, such as Fiskadora, which the New York Times described as “the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, ‘The Wasteland,’ Fahrenheit 451, and Dog Soldiers, screened Star Wars and Apocalypse Now several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.” And then, way after the fact, I read what most would call his masterwork, a short story collection called Jesus’ Son. I’ve read it multiple times since. Anyone who has not read Denis Johnson should start with Jesus’ Son. A blurb on the paperback gives us a clue to what special magic is going on here: “Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.”

The opening story that starts the collection is a kind of storytelling you probably haven’t experienced before. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it as a story where plot matters less than the “brokenness” of the narrator’s voice, “where the personal brushes up against the eternal.” Johnson, in his youth, had been a heroin addict, and if you combine the spiritual emptiness of a druggie with a gifted poet, a  storyteller who studied under Raymond Carver and was inspired by Isaac Babel’s The Red Calvary, and an artist with a clear unabashed honesty and the courage to go where few would ever admit to going, let alone describe, you get that first story in Jesus’ Son, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

Denis Johnson, who, from all accounts, enjoyed people but shunned them like he did the booze and drugs that nearly killed him, lived in the woods in upstate Idaho with his wife. According to Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker fiction editor, Johnson had a shed by a lake on his property where he would sometimes work. Treisman writes, the lake “provided a metaphor for how he thought about his sentences, which he polished, sometimes for years, until he felt he had got them right. ‘There’s a surface tension to the words,’ he told me. ‘It is an illusion, and you can poke at it once, and then after that you’re just poking the ripples.’” Lawrence Wright said Johnson described writing a novel to him this way: “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.” Wright uncovered three writing rules Johnson told students:

-Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
-Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
-Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to  call back every detail.

And once written, how did Johnson take the reviews? “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”

A lot of people loved the writing of Denis Johnson. And a lot of writers who marveled at his words will no doubt be reading them again in the coming days. Johnson was 67 years old when he died earlier this week from cancer.

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Moving Backward in Time: John Ashbury on Delmore Schwartz

John Ashbury’s essay, “The Heavy Bear: On Delmore Schwartz,” explores Delmore Schwartz’s life and poems and mentions his most famous short story (read above, oddly, by Lou Reed), “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Ashbury writes of the story, here “the poet himself moves backward in time, dreaming he is in a movie theatre watching a silent film of his parents’ courtship at Coney Island years before. At a crucial moment, “I stood up in the theatre and shouted: ‘Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.’ ”

 

A Manner of Being: Writer’s on Their Mentors

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentorsedited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, is a collection of essays by writers reflecting on the influence of their mentors (or lack of mentor). Most of the relationships were born in university classrooms, but despite this similarity, the experiences explored in Manner of Being are as varied as the collection of writers from which they’re drawn. The book delivers many lessons–in writing, teaching, life–and the lessons aren’t always delivered by writers (a nanny here, a bookstore owner there). There are some heavy hitters, though. Of the seventy essays, some of the writers represented are Pam Houston, Philip Levine, Mary Gaitskill, Gore Vidal, John Irving, Gordon Lish, Mary Jo Salter. There are also lesser known writers who have wonderfully told tales of their apprenticeships.

Click here for an example essay originally published in The New Yorker: George Saunders on Tobias Wolff.

 

A Smattering of Literary Mags on Twitter

Lit mags, so I am learning, have been on Twitter for quite a while, offering the latest submissions and publication info, as well as links to their essays, stories, poems, and interviews. Here’s a small sampling:

The Black Warrior Review

 

Conjunctions

 

The Iowa ReviewThe Iowa Review

 

The Kenyon Review

 

Ninth Letter

 

The Normal School

 

Ploughshares

 

Southeast Review

 

Third Coast

 

Tin House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” . . . A Life in 28 Lines

Written over 400 years ago, from As You Like It. Has anything changed about the way we grow old?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

NY Times: A Peek into Lost Lives

In the summer of 1991, as I was leaving the National Concert Hall in Dublin during an international writers’ conference, I was startled to see the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant walking alone ahead of me. She was small, had thick auburn hair and wore a red-and-black houndstooth suit and brown pumps. She crossed the street to the Conrad Hotel, where many visiting writers were staying. I found it impossible not to follow her.

Gallant was 68 then and didn’t strike me as frail, but she walked in a tentative way; when she approached the opposite curb, she paused to consider it, as if it were challenging her to leap across a creek. She entered the hotel. I trailed behind. I had read 11 of her books, marveling at the searing wit locked in embrace with bitter sadness, the intelligence wound around the loneliness. Her style was fast, knowing, brutally direct and so vivid it was outright filmic. Two years earlier she signed a book for me at an event in New York, but I was too stupidly awe-struck to speak to her then.

In the hotel lobby, four Irish women — local poets — were lounging on couches with the casual intimacy of women lying topless on a beach, yawning sumptuously, shoes kicked off, laughing loudly. Gallant stood silently near them, clearly at a loss. A conference official introduced her to the women. They said hello, extending their hands to her without standing up. I realized with dismay that they had no idea who she was.

Plenty of writers have gushed about Mavis Gallant’s work. Michael Ondaatje: “One of the great short-story writers of our time.” Fran Lebowitz: “The irrefutable master of the short story in English.” Russell Banks: “One of the immortals.” Margaret Atwood: “Wonderful.” Alice Munro: “Marvelous.” Alice Adams: “Astounding.” Why, then, did so few people know who Mavis Gallant was? Ondaatje called her work “a well-kept secret.” Yes, but what a pity to keep world-class literature a secret.

Gallant wandered off and sat in one of two empty chairs apart from the other writers. She appeared uncomfortable, isolated, out of place in her beautiful houndstooth suit. Suddenly some overwhelming impulse knocked my childish diffidence to the ground. I approached her. She said, “Yes?” smiling so eagerly that I had the impression she would have been thrilled at that moment to be addressed by any passing stranger. She invited me to sit with her. “I don’t know anyone here,” she said. “You’re only the second person who’s spoken to me since I arrived.”

I was disarmed by how uncertain and accessible she seemed. Uncertain? Forget that. With no uncertainty whatever she began shredding the writer’s conference — disorganized, haphazard and all that onstage nonsense about Europe becoming Americanized, the clichés about anti-intellectualism in America.

Eventually I said I admired her writing. She looked surprised, then pleased, then asked apprehensively: “Is that because I’m a woman? Because I read Proust, you know.”

It was like a line from one of her stories, momentarily startling, a non sequitur, until the meaning catches up with you and burrows deep, where it glows like a smoldering coal. She wouldn’t be categorized as a women’s writer, wouldn’t be categorized at all. No, I told her, I loved her work because she was a scarily great writer. Again, she smiled.

Finally, she had to travel by bus with the other writers to meet the president of Ireland. When we stood up, she held my forearm in both her freckled hands and said, “Do you want my address, Rosemary?”

Her address was so far-fetched a piece of intimacy that it had not occurred to me to want it. Floored, I took it. She hooked her arm in mine, and we went out. Boarding the bus, she said again, nervously, “I don’t know any of these people.” Somehow I found the nerve to tell her, “All you have to do is introduce yourself.” She laughed, thanked me and disappeared.

In “The Lives They Lived,” The New York Times offers unique insights, like the one above, into some of the lives that ended this year. There are a good many writers represented, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Walter Dean Myers, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and John Cheever’s wife, Mary, but also actors, comedians, directors, activists, teachers, musicians, politicians, sports legends, and victims.

NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2014

Holiday season is book time–time to read and time to give and receive. What better place to tap into the best contemporary writing than The New York Times‘ “100 Notable Books of 2014“?  Which ones have you read?