‘The Starlight on Idaho’ by Denis Johnson

Johnson writes shambolic characters with a sort of grubby, gleeful honesty. Here, Mark ‘Cass’ Cassandra is a recovering addict, in the early days of yet another rehab stint and writing imaginary letters to everybody to whom he is bound by blood or hurt: “I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart, I’m following the lines back to where they go.”

Every time I read this story, I think that the concerns of men and women writers are often very different, with men writing men externalising their pain and distributing it among the various people (often women) in their lives, while women write women swallowing their words and internalising it all. If writing about shambles is male territory, nobody goes for it like Johnson, with Cass describing his life in recent years as a serious of disasters – broke, lost, homeless, detox, shot. Yet underneath the bravado, Cass seeks to make amends for his mistakes, not wanting to end up where his grandmother has darkly prophesied, “buried in a strange town with your name spelled wrong on your grave.”

Of others’ pain, he says, “That’s what we gotta do is get down to just one story, the true person we are, and live it all the way out.” The hope in that one line will follow you. 

First published in Playboy, 2007. Collected in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Jonathan Cape, 2018

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