By Tyler Jones
About twenty years ago, when I was a fresh-faced young book seller, I read a book called Jesus’ Son by an author I’d never heard of - Denis Johnson. At first this collection of short stories just seemed like a pointless series of tales of confused and directionless young man’s attempts to get as drunk or high as possible. I was pretty sure that the author was himself an addict – the stories had an air of authenticity and were not written in the polished prose I had been led to believe made “good” writing. As I read on, however, I realized there was significant depth to these stories about one man’s attempt to make sense of his world. Then I saw that there was an overarching structure to the collection, in fact it was a novel posing as a short story collection. By the time I finished I was convinced Denis Johnson was a genius. I immediately read his (then) two available novels: Angels and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. Both are absolutely riveting portrayals of people who have been forgotten, marginalized and institutionalized. It would not be a stretch to say that these books taught me I have a great deal in common with those less fortunate than myself. A bit of bad luck and few bad choices and any one of us could end up there.
As the years passed I eagerly read every new Denis Johnson book. Or tried to. Already Dead, his massive 1997 novel of California counter-culture was confusing and unfocused and I could not get more than fifty pages into it. Tree of Smoke, an even more massive novel about Vietnam, had the same effect on me. Strangely these two books are often cited as Johnson’s best by critics. Tree of Smoke was so well received that it was awarded the National Book Award in 2007. Perhaps it is I, not the books, that is confused and unfocused.
I love his shorter works. The Name of the World, a short novel about a mid-western professor living in the aftermath of the death of his wife and child, was beautiful and gritty at the same time. It made me understand that personal tragedy can affect us in ways we cannot control or even really comprehend. I think having read this book prepared me in some way when years later I found myself trying to make sense of a senseless loss. When I think of people who say fiction has no real purpose but to entertain, I think of this book and know they are wrong.
This year Johnson released Train Dreams, a novella. I am amazed at how much Johnson has packed into the 116 pages of this book. He says as much as a lesser writer would take 300 pages to say. It is both the story of a poor labourer in the American northwest and a story about the development of America itself. I was completely captivated by the mix of realism and dream-logic the novel employs. It was my favourite book of 2011.
So there you are. If you have never read the work of Denis Johnson, I believe you have some great books to look forward to reading.