‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

Many writers, myself included, have gone through a Denis Johnson phase. It never ends well. His poetic but brutal images are dangerously alluring – how the rich of Beverly Hills wander around with ‘their heads shot off by money’ or how the narrator strips copper wiring from a house, the walls collapsing ‘with a noise like old men coughing’. It’s hard enough to imitate his language but impossible to replicate Johnson’s complex affection for his characters. I feel relieved to have finally abandoned hope of ever writing like him.

First published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1991 and available to read or listen to. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Picador, 1992, and widely anthologized

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