I was sad to see a recent article in the New Yorker stating that Dennis Johnson has passed away last week at the age of 67. Certainly not an old age, but considering the lifestyle of his earlier years, perhaps he lived longer than expected. He was a heavy drinker and drug user, clearly evident in his interconnected story collection “Jesus’ Son” which is supposedly based on his life experiences. His fiction was Simple and Heavy and usually quite short (which I admire greatly), and if anything can be derived from his fiction it is pretty safe to say that he was not a happy person. Probably not the type of person you’d want to spend a whole lot of time around, despite his immense talent as a storyteller.
At this point I have read 3 of his novels, 1 novella, the above mentioned short story collection, and 1 uncollected short story. This would probably be a good time to briefly review each of them.
Angles – I haven’t read this novel yet, but I do plan on doing so. It was listed in David Foster Wallace’s “Overlooked” essay where he lists 5 highly underrated novels. This essay is in fact where I first came across Johnson, and had I not, I may have never read anything by him. The problem is (as far as I know) that this book is not available on audio yet, and from what I’ve seen I think it’s one of his longer works, so that might be another problem, but we’ll see.
Jesus’ Son – the First Johnson work I ever read and generally accepted as his best, certainly best known, and also the only one to be made into a movie (which I haven’t seen, and may not ever see, given the subject matter). The book is an interconnected story collection about drug addicts in Seattle. The stories are all really short for the most part and work really well with each other in the collection, likewise they all work really well as standalone stories, as I have now read most of them in my ongoing anthology project. Like most of his audio books this one is read by Will Patton, who is a very good voice actor, not because he is great at affecting different voices, but because he has a rugged dirty voice that echoes the overall tone of the book outstandingly.
Tree of Smoke – Johnson’s longest novel (or at least longest that I’ve read), three times as long as the other two on this list. It takes place in and around the Vietnam War, a man who’s joined the army and his kid brother back home. There are some really heavy spots in it, but some great story telling as well. There is one character, a black man, who only refers to himself as “Black Man” and who is very over the top. You find out later in the novel that his real name is “Charles Blackman” and states that people always laugh when he tells them that, but the man he tells this to says “It just seems sad.” There is also a healthy amount of Psychological Warfare in novel as well, most diffidently worth the read.
Nobody Move – this novel is about a man who finds himself on the run from some very bad people and ends up having an affair with a Native American woman who is also on the run from a crooked judge who also happens to be her husband. This is the kind of novel that starts off murky and you have no idea where it will go, and takes you on a wild ride. Also very much worth the read, it’s also lighter (though not a light book) and shorter then other’s he’s written, so it’s probably a good place to start with Johnson’s work.
Train Dreams – for me it’s between this book and Tree of Smoke for my favorite Johnson work, but it’s hard to choose because they are very different. This is a novella, winner of a Pulitzer and an Aga Khan, it’s an epic tale of a single man from the west, born in the later 1800’s and living into the 1960’s and some of the people he’s encountered along the way. The “story” opens when the man is working on the transcontinental railroad and witnesses a Chinese man who escapes from being hanged on a trestle bridge. It’s a very short book, only 2 hours and change, and very good. I would say it’s a good place to start with Johnson accept for the fact that it’s very different from most of his other works.
The Laughing Monsters – My least favorite of Johnson’s works, at least from what I’ve read so far. It takes place in Africa, and follows a man who works for Interpol as he tags along with an old Africa friend of his who is in the midst of some kind of money making scheme, and his fiancé. There are a lot of secrets that the three primary characters are keeping from each other, to the point where it gets kind of annoying. That, the setting, and the fact that the book is not read by will Patton, make this one you might want to put later on the list.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – a short story, perhaps the last to be published in his life (certainly the last to be Published in the New Yorker), was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2015, which is otherwise a very good collection and still stands out well on its own. Longer for a story, it deals with a divorced man, and the strange similarities between his two ex-wives.
Posthumous Collection – I’ve been hopping for years that at some point they would release a new collection of Johnson stories, either an omnibus that includes Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams, and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden; or a standalone collection including The Largesse of the Sea Maiden but not the other two. I don’t know how much short fiction Johnson has written in his lifetime, but I think another collection should be released. He also originally started out as a poet, so maybe some of his poems could be included to fill out the collection better. Of course I have no connection to his estate so it is only a wise at best.
Rest in Peace Denis Johnson, you and you’re writing will truly be missed.