One of the best opening sequences I’ve ever read is in Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE. The first few pages are a jolt into the quiet realities of war, as 18 yr old Seaman Apprentice William Houston Jr. stalks alone through a jungle in Vietnam. Three years after first reading this, my heart still aches — and I mean literally here — just to think about it. (If you never saw the NYT review, read it here. I’ve rarely seen such worthy praise.)
That said, I never got going when I tried to read this 600 pager. (I’ll spare you my list of lame excuses.) Now Johnson has a new book out, a 128 page novella called TRAIN DREAMS, and all I can think about is going back and reading TREE OF SMOKE. Yesterday I saw the review of TRAIN DREAMS in The New Yorker and it brought to mind all the reasons I picked up Johnson’s big Vietnam epic in the first place. “Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision. His characters are often weirdly privileged noticers, for whom reality will confess slightly esoteric pigments and details.” Weirdly privileged noticers. And “realism in Johnson’s fiction often seems, like the Savoy Hotel, to be about to dribble away into a dream, and what brings it back from the looking-glass world is the exactitude of Johnson’s language.”
I met Denis a couple of years ago when he visited my grad program (here’s a fun article about him). He gave a big reading and then sat around the conference room table the next day and, for lack of a better phrase, shot the shit with about 10 of us. I remember I asked him a couple of questions and, though I don’t recall his answers, I can still see him looking me right in the eye, answering seriously and at length and with appropriate flippancy. Definitely a shy guy, but comfortable in, and even caustic about, his writing; a guy who seems not to care what anyone else wants from him; an artist who’s not all that comfortable talking about his “art.” I left there wanting to read everything he’d ever written. He’s one of those writers I think of when people ask, “should I go to an MFA program?” Reading Denis Johnson is some damned good schooling.
I don’t know if I’m in the mood for another 600 pager just now, having recently finished Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, but the arrival of Johnson’s latest serves as one of those kicks in the ass I often need. First, I’m getting my hands on a copy of TRAIN DREAMS. I can squeeze in 128 pages, right? And second, I was looking at my shelf of “to read” books and most of them are by women. Not to cause a feminist uproar here, but come on … maybe that’s one reason I’m a little bored with my reading list lately. I need to hear a different voice.
What are your favorite “man” books?