- - Thursday, April 5, 2018


By Denis Johnson

Random House, $27, 207 pages

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The late Denis Johnson was a writer who said what was on his mind, often bluntly. When asked to name his favorite mass cultural product, he replied, “I love McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, and I don’t care if they are made of pink slime and ammonia. I eat them all the time because they’re delicious.”

He wrote directly too, and his readers, his peers, and the literary establishment loved the gritty talk and the grittier characters. His 2007 novel “Tree of Smoke” won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer; in 2012, another novel “Train Dreams” was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Last July, he was posthumously awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. This collection of short stories is praised by such luminaries as Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich and Don DeLillo. That’s the varsity.

Denis Johnson left 20 works of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and drama. A graduate of the famous Iowa Writers Center, he’d studied with Raymond Carver, who also saw life through a lens darkly.

He confessed to one interviewer that he had no answer to what he saw as life’s essential quality, chaos: “I can’t remember very many situations where I had even the tiniest idea what the heck was going on It’s a great comfort to get out a blank sheet of paper and make a world where everybody’s just as lost as I am.”

He certainly makes that world in this book’s five short stories, the first of which gives the book its title. He traces advertising man — Bill Whitlock — (think “witless”?) around Manhattan where he’s come to receive an award.

At the dinner, just before he is to receive his medallion, Whitlock is seized by a pinched nerve in his back and a dysentery dilemma brought on by having snacked on two New York dogs with everything. He muddles through, accepts his award, and then returns to his hotel where, after a nap he wakes up pain free, and goes out and walks around the city, something Mr. Johnson’s characters are wont to do.

The next short story, “The Starlight on Idaho,” is set in the former Starlight Motel on Idaho Avenue in Ukiah (“the armpit of the world”), California, which is now the Starlight Recovery Addiction Center, where one Mark Cassandra (Cass) is writing never-to-be-sent letters to his family and a passel of others from the Almighty, His arch foe Satan and the pope (“Dear Pope John Paul, Do you have two first names, or is Paul your last name, like you’re Mr. Paul.”) As that indicates, Mr. Johnson is not without humor, but the humor is most often black as well as bleak.

That Cass is in a treatment center should come as no surprise, given his family background: ” the idiot Grandma the medicated father the brother on the run and the mother and brother in prison.” However, he says to each of them, “Every time your heart beats I can feel a little something. Whether you like it or not, that’s love ” That attitude, along with the (dark) humor, the Romanticism, and the slim belief in the possibility of a better and happier life somewhere, somehow, coalesce to make Denis Johnson’s work so readably sustainable.

The other three stories the collection are equally quirky and exciting. In “Strangler Bob,” the narrator describes a fellow inmate in the county lockup as having “signal-flag ears, a chinless chin, scrunched forehead, his whole little face rushing out onto a really big nose, a regular beak — a face like a Mardi Gras mask.”

Like Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson knew whereof he wrote. He published his first book of poetry (“The Man Among Seals”) at age 19, but within two years was in a psychiatric ward, addicted to alcohol, drugs and eventually heroin. He had a stay in another psychiatric ward during the first of his three marriages.

Despite his reverence for such larger-than-life poets as Dylan Thomas and Walt Whitman, Mr. Johnson was not noticeably full of himself. He told one interviewer, “The truth is, I just write sentences.” Ah, but what fine sentences.

Readers may remember that Denis Johnson fan Philip Roth once said something similar about his own work:

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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