The author’s collection of Denis Johnson novels.

by Hugh Gilmore

Way back when our little town of Chestnut Hill had its own Borders book store, right at the major intersection at the top of the hill, one could browse its colorful bookcases and enjoy the now-antique pleasure of discovering a book and author for the first time.

Back then, cover design and jacket blurbs still mattered. And of course, it was also a time when the decision to buy or not might be affected by how the book appealed to your sense of touch. Its smoothness, weight and texture – and clean smelling pages – could seduce you all on their own.

It was almost customary in those days for couples meeting for dinner in Chestnut Hill to skip the dessert course, split up and reunite at Border’s upstairs café, after everyone had browsed separately for a while. It was cheap entertainment and a play on the old dinner-and-a-movie evening.

On one such trip to Borders in 2001, in the evening after dinner at Roller’s (when it was called that, and nestled in the plaza behind Borders), my group diverged and went hunting in different sections of the bookstore. Arbitrarily, I chose the alcove that housed authors whose last names began with J.

The previous year, I had really enjoyed a couple of books by the American writer Thom Jones (1945-2016). One, “The Pugilist at Rest” (1993) had been a National Book Award nominee. The other had, for a Philadelphia boxing fan, the intriguing title, “Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine” (1999).

Jones wrote about mortality, pain, humiliation and the search for a perspective that would make life’s trials bearable. His books are essentially story collections, with frequent visits to the worlds of boxing or the Vietnam War. Constant in his books are the experiences of physical trauma, monstrous fathers and the philosophy of Schopenhauer.

So I went through the J section that night hoping to find a Thom Jones book I hadn’t read. I didn’t find one, but as so often happens when you have the freedom to physically browse, I found a book called “The Name of the World” that had been published the previous year (2000). I was intrigued by that title. The author’s name was Denis Johnson. I knew nothing about him then.

From the flap: “The acclaimed author of ‘Jesus’ Son’ and ‘Already Dead’ returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel.” The plot concerned a professor at a Midwestern university who was still suffering from the loss of his wife and daughter four years previously, and whose brief stint at the university was coming to an end. Though outwardly appearing to be successful, he is a dead man walking. Circumstances force him to begin acting “like someone who cares what happens to him.”

The tributes on the back of the dust jacket contained such praise as, “profoundly American,” “uniquely gifted,” “magical” and “original.” Comparisons were offered to “Twain in his biting irony,” “Whitman in his erotic excess,” Dashiell Hammett’s “gouged, wounded world” and “William Blake, who has seen his demon and yearned for God and forged a language to contain them both.”

That was enough for me. I purchased and read that book. I have been a devoted reader of Denis Johnson ever since. He lived from 1949 to 2017. His 20s were dominated by drug and alcohol addictions, though he did manage to write some books of poetry. His novel-writing career did not get started until he achieved sobriety in 1983 and published his first work of fiction, “Angels.” The dust jacket describes it as “a spare and highly charged novel that moves along the dark edge of American life.” That fringe includes seedy barrooms, mental wards, cheap hotels and prison cells as “two desperate people … come together as they are falling apart.”

I really came aboard when I read his first short story collection, “Jesus’ Son” (1992). (The title taken from the Velvet Underground song, “Heroin Addict.” The book’s reviews ran along the lines of its being a “unique hallucinatory vision of contemporary American life, unmatched in power and immediacy” and a “neon-lit evocation of a strange world brought uncomfortably close.” A movie of the same name was made from the book, but nothing can ever recreate the gorgeousness of Johnson’s language. He is a writer whose books simply cannot be read through quickly.

When I happened on Johnson’s “The Name of the World” in 2001, I had the good fortune of being able to binge on his five previous works of fiction. After that, over the years, five more appeared, including his “Tree of Smoke,” which won the National Book Award in 2007.

Sadly, the most recent Denis Johnson book that I’ve read was “The Largesse of the Sea Maidens,” (2018) published posthumously. It’s a collection of unpublished pieces that don’t really go anywhere, but, like Michelangelo’s unfinished pieces, you can admire the power and mastery of a genius as he works the form – and leaves you wondering what might have been.

When I read him, I am struck time and again by his surprising insights and unexpected word choices. I read him with awe. He was an American Master, but his works will probably never be read in many schools, and his fame will have to rest with the adult reading population, not many of whom read novels anymore, and even fewer still who read raw, unkempt ones written at a high literary level.

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