‘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

‘Work’ by Denis Johnson

Tense, and time. Johnson’s collection of stories is narrated by the same protagonist throughout. Studying sentences like “But now the river was flat and slow”, I learned (continue to learn) to manage tense in a story. Speaking in the past tense, within that speaking about something that happened further in the past, or is happening in the ‘present’ of your story, in the past tense, confused yet? Perspective rears its head again, where is your narrator telling the story from, what point in time? This will set the tone. If the character is talking to us about an event that took place a year previous, the rougher edges of what looks like a harrowing experience may have smoothed out somewhat, they know what happened next, compared to something that happened to the protagonist the day before. Just knowing this while you’re writing gives a better flow, the language will naturally follow from the awareness of perspective. And on to the language, there is definitely something that defies assimilation: “the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me.” A hailstorm, such a description allowed me to see it as if for the first time. 

First published in The New Yorker, November 14, 1988 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992, Granta, 2012. Also available to read here

‘Beverley Home’ by Denis Johnson

This story comes from Johnson’s interconnected, profoundly weird collection, and is the one that I go back to read again and again. It’s about a voyeur who works in the titular Beverley Home for the disabled and elderly, who begins peeping into the home of a woman and her husband after the sound of her singing in the shower calls him in from the road on his way home. What strikes me is Johnson’s unsentimental presentation of the things we do when no one watches, and the weight and complexity of loneliness. He reminds me that the best writer lays judgement aside and just watches: witnesses possibilities, taboos, truths, and the scattered, slow, multi-layered world going by. Johnson’s ability to evoke the body, especially when that body is judged ‘ugly’ or broken, and his ability to make it all new again, gives me so much pleasure.

First published in The Paris Review, Fall 1992 and available online to subscribers here. Collected in  Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992/Granta Books, 2012

‘Train Dreams,’ by Denis Johnson

I first read ‘Train Dreams’ in O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, edited by Laura Furman, the same place I first read ‘What Went Wrong’ and a half-dozen other truly great stories I’ve never quite forgotten. The only single-year anthology volume I’ve ever read that is the rival of O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 is O. Henry Prize Stories 2002, edited by Larry Dark. These two books were so adventurous and so varied it seemed like American short fiction had no limit and no ceiling, and although I guess that’s still true, I don’t know that there will ever be another two-year run like that one.

‘Train Dreams’ the long story became Train Dreams the short novel in 2011 without making any changes except in how it was typeset and bound. Famously, it was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012, the year the Pulitzer board was so befuddled by its choices (which also included Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King) that they refused to give any fiction prize at all.

‘Train Dreams’ is befuddling, but not in the way the Pulitzer board was thinking. It’s a very strange story, written in a strange point of view that lands somewhere between history and fable, and which concerns a person whose life seems to wash over him, tide-like, and then, at the end, wash away. In our hyper-self-conscious age, I haven’t met many people like the protagonist, but as a child, in the trailer where my grandfather (who did not finish the eighth grade) lived, I met plenty of people who seemed in some way like the protagonist of ‘Train Dreams,’ and their lives were mysteries that from the outside seemed almost as magical as the affect Denis Johnson creates in this wonderful, long, oddly-shapen story work of art.

Train Dreams, FSG, 2011/Granta, 2012

‘Dundun’ by Denis Johnson

A narrator, called Fuckhead, arrives at a midwest farmhouse to score some opium only to be met by a man called Dundun, who tells Fuckhead that he has just shot a man called McInnes. The three of them drive to a hospital but McInnes dies on the way. Fuckhead says, “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” I could have chosen any one of the 11 short stories that make up this remarkable collection about the heroin-sodden lives of a bunch of junkies and thieves. There is no honour here, just a struggle to score the next fix. Hallucinatory, intense, breathtaking—it’s the finest collection of stories I’ve ever read.

In Jesus’ Son, Faber & Faber, 1992