Staff Chat: Ben, Keaton, and Mark Talk Denis Johnson

Ben: Denis Johnson’s posthumous story collection is coming out January 16!

Mark: Which you read and said was amazing.

BR: Which was really really good.


BR: —Which I think is notable, not only in that its the last book of his, but also because it’s only his second short story collection ever. Of course, he’s primarily known as a novelist, but the book of his that remains the most famous and enduring is his other short story collection, JESUS’ SON.

MH: JESUS’ SON was my introduction to him, probably like many people. Like you said, it is his most celebrated, or known.

KP: Any book with a protagonist named F***head should be known.

MH: *laughs*

BR: But you guys also read TRAIN DREAMS, right?

KP: TRAIN DREAMS was terrific. It was one of the first books I fell in love with as a Brazos Bookstore bookseller, and I thoroughly believe it should have won the Pulitzer that year they couldn’t get it together for the Fiction award.

BR: That’s right, it was that one, the SWAMPLANDIA, and…

KP: And David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, yeah.

MH: And for such a small book, it has such an influence, at least for me as a reader. since i’ve read it, there’ve been favorites of mine that remind me of TRAIN DREAMS. Even [John Williams’] STONER, where you have this entire life told with — not brevity, there’s great depth to it — but it just feels complete.

KP: Condensed, it’s compact.

BR: It’s interesting the way certain books become touchstones, not even just personally, but in describing other books to people. Like, “this is like TRAIN DREAMS,” or “this has a JESUS’ SON feel to it.”

Because I feel like JESUS’ SON is just as idiosyncratic and particular. I remember when I read that book… There’s a lot of attention now on the “linked short story collection” (note the scare quotes), but when JESUS’ SON came out I don’t think there was quite that conversation around “is it a novel? Is it a short story collection?” It is 11 stories that are all narrated by the same person, which feels novelistic in its scope.

I think the way that book mixes gritty realism with these very soaring poetic impulses in these brief little flashes became a touchstone for me, where I began describing other books and other writers as being like “this is like JESUS’ SON,” or “like Denis Johnson.”

MH: So it became very much a touchstone, stylistically. B: Yeah, reframing your approach to the stuff you read, I suppose.

KP: Plus, it’s just a cool f***ing book. The title comes from the Velvet Underground song, it’s deep but also funny and slapstick, it’s strange, fueled by drug culture…. It’s an enjoyable, great, literary read.

I also think it’s got those strange moments of transcendence for FH in it, where he’s very critical of drug addiction and portraying it as something that’s destructive, but not totally devoid of value as an experience. which I thought was an interesting way to put it. Because Denis Johnson got sober. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to write when he was sober, but realized “no, that’s BS, i’m better now.”

MH: Ben, you saw him, didn’t you?

BR: I saw him read at the University of Arizona. Which was for a book called NOBODY MOVE.

KP: His noir take, right?

BR: Yeah, it’s not, um… one of the great ones. But it’s funny because it’s very hard boiled.

As he was reading it, he read a sentence and he was kind of like, “ugh, this isn’t literature, folks.” So he doesn’t seem as though he took himself all that seriously. It’s funny.

There’s a book coming out in April, Leslie Jameson’s book, THE RECOVERING, which is in large part about literary drunkenness and the way that we perceive of these writers. Like Jean Rhys, or Raymond Carver, or Malcolm Lowry, as being these drunken maniacs who got their power from that.

Denis Johnson features fairly heavily in that book, and he was apparently getting letters his whole life that were basically saying: “With your career, thank you for teaching me that you don’t have to be a rowdy drunk to be a great writer.” He seems to be a humble sort, like many people who are in AA are, you know?


MH: I remember when he died, a few writers I follow on twitter talked about having him as a teacher. Someone wrote this ode to how amazing he was as a professor and teacher, how nourishing he was. He made an apology in the beginning of the semester and said “look, sometimes I might get really enthusiastic and I might cry a bit.” It was really moving to see some students come out and say what a great teacher and person he was.

KP: I like to cry.

BR: You're in the right business.

What is it that makes a writer speak so well to multiple generations of people the way he did? He came of age and was friends with rowdier realists in the 80’s. Still in 2017, in putting together an evening where we will read most of jesus’ son, it did not take much to find ten people in their 20s and 30s who jumped on it, like “Jesus’ Son is a huge touchstone for me.”

KP: He kind of came in with the Dirty Realism movement with other writers like Richard Ford.

I think it’s always seemed to me that those others aspired to some transcendent literary greatness, and Denis Johnson’s work always connected with people on a more visceral, everyday kind of level. Almost a Common Man kind of thing, instead of basking… talking about his parents for pages on end. You know. It makes the books more identifiable with everyday readers of literary fiction.

BR: Frank Bascombe and the Richard Ford books seem meant to stand in for the “Modern Man,” you know, they feel almost allegorical at a certain point. Whereas Denis Johnson, in JESUS’ SON, isn’t aspiring to that.

KP: He’s a misfit. A lot of people who read literary fiction are misfits. There’s a lot to connect with there.

BR: There’s also something stylistic about Johnson that I don’t find in many other writers, which is this ability to seem completely off-the-cuff. Anytime you read those stories, it seems as though they’re just happening in front of you. The endings could be different; it feels live streamed or something. They seem almost shapeless at first, and the amount of effort it must take to get them into that shapelessness, I know some of those stories in JESUS’ SON he worked on for a decade.

MH: And they don’t feel labored over.

BR: At all. I always remembered the rambling nature of them. FH, who is just sort of a drug addict and alcoholic through much of those: getting into trouble, sitting on baby rabbits and killing them by accident, stuff like that… I always remember that attitude of the stories.

Then after Johnson died and I reread that book and a few of his other ones, what really stood out to me were the moments of grace and yearning in that book.

For example, the second story, TWO MEN: he feels up his friend’s girlfriend at a dance and he thinks that the friend is going to chase him down to shoot him, but they get this other drunk guy in their car who just shows up. They’ve got to drive him around; they end up at this weird house party at one point…

It’s just very rambling and off-the-cuff, and it’s about these dumb guys getting into trouble, but once in a while there’s a moment. I remember, this woman comes to the window of this house he’s yelling up at, she comes to shout at him and tell him to shut up. There’s just a sentence like, “I was so flooded with yearning i thought it would drown me,” or something like that.

There are these little glimpses of this really f***ed up character who’s just trying to find this other thing and really wants it, but doesn’t have the linguistic tools to articulate it. Which is really great. It’s like you’re living right in that guy’s head, reading that book.

MH: And that’s a book, sadly, that I’ve read once and felt more and more that I need to revisit. Because I remember reading it and being very floored. One of my good friends at home, who’s really a mentor, would just say “you’ve got to read this book.” Then I saw the movie shortly after… But it’s a book that I think you can read over and over.

BR: I think TRAIN DREAMS is too.

KP: I think TRAIN DREAMS is a timeless classic. That book will stand the test of time. i will say this again, it was ROBBED when it was not given the Pulitzer. But yeah, that’s a true American epic in literature.

BR: His other books are awfully good too. They often seem to get short shrift against JESUS’ SON and TRAIN DREAMS, but I guess when you’ve written those two books…

MH: I mean, FISKADORO? I’ve never read it but I have it.

KP: One of the things I always think is great about Johnson’s books, and that sets him apart from his contemporaries, is that he never wrote the same book twice. You read Richard Ford, you can tell it’s a Richard Ford novel. You read Raymond Carver, you can tell it’s Raymond Carver. Denis Johnson was just all over the place. gothic, drug culture—

MH: Noir—

BR: Drugs—

KP: Western—

BR: Western spy thriller… TREE OF SMOKE is definitely kind of an espionage spy thriller, and so is his last novel—

MH: And kind of a war book, too.

BR: — His last novel, THE LAUGHING MONSTERS, is a straight up spy novel. K: And FISKADORO, it’s post-apocalyptic fiction.

BR: It’s a — what do they call it now— Cli-Fi.

KP: He can write anything.

MH: That’s right.

BR: I think i’m the only one who’s read the new one. LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN is coming out, so we’re going to do the marathon reading of JESUS’ SON to celebrate it!

I would just say about the new one, quickly, that I’m worried sometimes about these posthumous books, that they’ve been rushed to be finished or something like that. But he finished this before he died — it doesn’t feel like a quickie. There are five stories. They’re all pretty long (about 50 or 60 pages), and they have room to breathe. They go to strange places. There’s one that calls back very specifically to JESUS’ SON, and revisits a character from that book.

It’s both crushing to read, because you know there’s not going to be another book, and inspiring, to think of him working on that book as he knew that his life was coming to a close, and seeing the way that he was processing that through the fiction. Within that context, some of the stories (and especially the way that they end) are just devastating.

It feels like one of those books that is very much wrestling with mortality — a late career book that is written by a person with the awareness that this could very well be their last. It has that weight to it, but he’s funny as ever, that’s the thing.

MH: I can’t wait to read it. And our event on January 16 is going to be a fun reading!

BR: Lots of rowdiness!

It’s a marathon, but with no running.

KP: You can run in place.

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