Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Denis Johnson vs. The Reclusive Writer

ALMOST exactly two years ago i was walking through Book Expo America in ny with the galley for denis johnson's then-new "tree of smoke." at least half a dozen people who saw his name on the oversized spine stopped me and asked, with some excitement, where they could get one. i've never had a similar experience with another writer. 

(the vietnam-set book, of course, went on to win the sometimes noirish, sometimes epic author a long overdue national book award.)

that palpable sense of anticipation -- and my sense that johnson would once again refuse to do press or appearances for the novel -- led me to write THIS piece on the phenomenon of "the reclusive writer." as someone who's loved salinger in high school and pynchon since college, it was a subject i'd been thinking about for years.

as luck would have it, FSG has just released the new johnson novel, "nobody move," which is an expanded version of his monthly installments for playboy last year. (the magazine is trying a similar trick with a james ellroy memoir right now.)

johnson's "nobody move," is a stripped down crime novel that resembles jim thompson or early tarantino.  “What the —? Where’s the literary?" johnson asked when he read part of it in greenwich village not long ago. "I thought I put something literary in my suitcase, but this is just cheap pulp fiction.” 

your humble correspondent, of course, is a lover of cheap pulp fiction. this -- approvingly reviewed here -- is neither at the level of thompson, hammett, etc. nor as good as even overlooked johnson novels like "already dead" or "rescusitation of a drowned man." but it's brisk and appealing in its own way: johnson certainly writes about lowlifes better than anyone i know right now.

as for recluses, i see salinger is still cranky today.

and did anybody remember that pynchon (that's him in the navy cap) wrote "likes pizza; dislikes hypocrites" in his hs yearbook? i cannot think of a better statement of purpose for any writer.


fishjim said...


Thanks for this. I've been looking for a re-entry point on Johnson, and this helps. My problem is that I discovered his poem first, then picked up Jesus' Son after hearing raves from everyone breathing in SF in the late 90s. I saw the lyrical fire in JS, but it wasn't for me. There was an exaggeration and contrivance about the characters that I didn't find in his poems.

Anyway, it sounds like he's worked that kink out. I'm thinking I'll try again with Already Dead -- since I'm a Jim Dodge and Vineland-era Pynchon fan -- and if that satisfies, pick up Tree of Smoke. Speak up if you'd take another route.

Back to the poems, here's a favorite:


There is a part
of this poem where you must
say it with me, so
be ready, together we will make
it truthful, as there is gracefulness
even in the motioning of those
leafless trees, even in

such motion as descent. Fired,
I move downward through it all again
in an aquarium of debt, submerging
with the flowering electric
company, with March the 10th, 1971,
its darkness, justice and mercy

like clownfish, funnily striped.
Let them both as a matter of policy
redevour the light that
escapes them, Shakespeare
had just candles, lamps,

Milton had only the
dark, and what difference? as
poetry, like failure, is fathered
in any intensity of light, and light
in all thicknesses of darkness,

as your voice, you out there,
wakes now, please, to say
it with me: There
are descents more final, less graceful
than this plummeting
from employment; it is the middle of a false

thaw, the ice undercoating
of a bare branch is
in the midst of falling. Where
can it all be put except
in this poem, under us, breaking this fall,
itself falling
while breaking it? Look
at this line, stretching out, breaking even as it
falls to this next, like a suicide,
the weather singing
past his face, and arising to kill him
this first last line in weeks.

-- from Inner Weather, 1976

Scott Timberg said...

i discovered dj's poetry after i read a few of his novels, and of course it's ravishing. i like jesus' son a lot -- it's probably his most celebrated, still -- but it's in some ways monochromatic.
i wish you a long and bountiful journey enjoying his work!