This year has already been absolutely terrific for me, as far as reading goes. The first book I read was a Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Other Wind’, which I grabbed while down at a friend’s place in Kangaroo Valley. It’s a beautiful, elegant fable, powerfully told by a master storyteller. Since then, I’ve had the absolute pleasure to re-read an old favourite (American Gods) and discover an incredible talent (decades late).
That talent would be the remarkable Denis Johnson. A week or two back, my friend came home and said, ‘I’ve chucked a you, and just bought a random book by someone I’d never heard of. It’s called Train Dreams.’
He read it, I read it, and we agree: it’s a masterpiece. At only 120 pages, it’s more novella than novel but it packs more beauty and pain in its punch than most fully-fledged books. It’s like sinking into the dream of a worn life in the Old West. Johnson’s prose and ability is akin to Hemingway – they have the same blunt, efficient sentence-making – but better, in that he couples this narrative immediacy with the finesse of poetry.
Having stumbled accidentally onto this Pulitzer Prize-nominated, National Book Award winning author and poet, I couldn’t stop there and have just finished his short story collection Jesus’ Son. It absolutely blew me away. This collection is set against the backdrop of a run-down small town and while never stated outright, is narrated by the same troubled young dope addict. Johnson’s immeasurable skill is in taking ordinary, beat-down people and, in a single sentence, transporting you into their lives. He brings them to immediate, vivid life in each story – most of which feel like disturbing fever dreams.
Time is elastic; so is his perception of the world, along with his morals. These stories feel not like drug-highs, but the hangover that follows, the pall that pulls at reality, stretches and bends it and makes universes out of each sand-grain rolling in your eyelids. But don’t take my word for his brilliance, here’s a selection of some of my favourite lines.
In Car Crash While Hitchhiking:
His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down on the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.
In Two Men:
A quarter mile behind us, Stan paused among the fields in the starlight, in the posture of somebody who had a pounding hangover or was trying to fit his head back onto his neck.
In Out on Bail:
I looked down the length of the Vine. It was a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere. The people all seemed to have escaped some place – I saw plastic hospital name bracelets on several wrists.
It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.
The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that stranded her here.
A champion of the drug LSD, a very famous guru of the love generation, is being interviewed amid a TV crew off to the left of the poultry cages. His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has.
In Dirty Wedding:
I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materialising and dematerialising in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.
Okay, this isn’t working. Every sentence I choose is shown up by the next sentence in line, and the next, all of them of a piece with their respective wholes, with the tone and atmosphere. I’m so immersed in them, I don’t even know if I’m choosing right, I want to choose all of them, every word – to give you the ordinary description pared with the unexpected brilliance, the sucker punch of poetry, to give you the command of narrative, the rejection of form, to show you how utterly impossible it is to know where any given story will end or why.
I cannot explain how he’s able to say so much in so little space, how a character can loom so large over a single page, how a single line can realign the meaning of the entire narrative and your perception of the narrator. This is a novel I will have to read again, and again, and again so that its magic can sink into my bones, so that by osmosis if nothing else, I can begin to learn the secrets of such masterful work. Right alongside George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Alice Munro’s Dear Life, these are stories to be experienced and to be studied.
Pick up some of his work as soon as you can – you will not regret it, I swear. With that being done, and continuing the theme of incredible short story collections, I can happily report I’m now reading Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove and it is shaping up to be everything I hoped for and then some.