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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Denis Johnson

At a glance
Jesus' Son
by Denis Johnson

Harper Perennial
176 pages, $12

You have to love a writer like Denis Johnson.

For one thing, he’s talented. The fact that he just won a National Book Award for his epic novel "Tree of Smoke" (all 624 pages of it) is only the latest argument underscoring that opinion.

But one reason why you have to like Johnson – and at least part of the reason why we chose his story collection "Jesus’ Son" as the January read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club – is that he has no problem saying exactly what’s on his mind.

Here’s an example: Bret Anthony Johnson, interviewing the author for the National Book Foundation (which sponsors the National Book Award), asked him what the role of the fiction writer is "in a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis."

"Storytellers have enjoyed quite a wide audience over the last few centuries," Denis Johnson replied. "Now it’s dwindling, and if the world’s leaders have their way they’ll probably return us to an era when we tell tales around small fires in caves. But we’ll always have stories to tell."

And Johnson, it seems, wants to be there to do the telling.

Born in 1949 in Munich, Germany, Johnson was the son of a U.S. State Department employee. Raised in places as diverse as Tokyo, Manila and Washington, D.C., he has in recent years spent summers living just outside Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Despite his own battles with drink and drugs – memories of which he has said formed the basis for "Jesus’ Son" – Johnson earned a graduate degree at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he studied (and drank) with noted story writer Raymond Carver.

A practitioner of all genres, Johnson has written novels, story collections, poetry, plays and screenplays, plus the occasional bit of journalism.

He missed the National Book Awards ceremonies because he was on a magazine assignment in Iraq.

Not everyone loves Johnson’s work. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, reviewer B.R. Myers stated, "Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except ‘Tree of Smoke,’ his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else."

Many of Johnson’s fans, though, hold influential positions. One such admirer is Michiko Kakutani, book critic for The New York Times.

"Mr. Johnson not only succeeds in conjuring the anomalous, hallucinatory aura of the Vietnam War as authoritatively as Stephen Wright or Francis Ford Coppola, but he also shows its fallout on his characters with harrowing emotional precision," Kakutani wrote of "Tree of Smoke."

"He has written a flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war."

"Jesus’ Son," a slim volume of 11 stories, has its own hallucinatory appeal, one that might impress even the doubter Myers.

Told through the eyes of one narrator, the stories – in the words of reviewer Daniel McGuiness – explore the "blighted landscape of addiction, reckless rock-’n’-roll love, and the benighted days of the American underclass."

The book’s narrator is a young man, living in a small Iowa town, hanging out with a collection of life’s losers and battling alcohol, heroin (the book’s title comes from a line in Lou Reed’s song "Heroin") and his own inner demons:

"I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven."

Unlike other drug tales, and despite the fact that the stories are connected only loosely, Johnson’s book does progress toward redemption.

That fact, plus Johnson’s sometimes elliptical yet always powerful prose style, has caused some reviewers to regard it with a kind of reverence:

•From Newsday: "Denis Johnson is an amazingly talented writer, a synthesizer of profoundly American voices: We can hear Twain in his biting irony, Whitman in his erotic excess, not a little of Dashiell Hammett too in the hard sentences he throws back at his gouged, wounded world.

"And behind all these you sense something else: a visionary angel, a Kerouac or, better yet, a Blake, who has seen his demon and yearned for God and forged a language to contain them both."

•From the The Nation: "Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious."

•From the Atlantic Monthly: "Jesus’ Son may eventually be read … as a distinctive turn in the history of the form. (Johnson) is doing something deeply new in these stories, and the formal novelty brings us into a new intimacy with the violence that is rising around us in this country like the killing waters of a flood."

Hey, the reviewers are trying to write as poetically as the writer himself.

That’s a good sign. Most everyone thinks so.

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