Denis Johnson: An Appreciation

One of my favorite writers passed away on May 24, 2017 at age 67. I was re-reading his work and came across this review/appreciation that I had written a couple of years ago.

Denis Johnson writes with a unique, confident, and oddly compelling voice in a style that does not fit “normal” criteria for structure, characterization, or narrative plot. Yet, it doesn’t seem to matter.

The eleven linked stories in Jesus’ Son are all narrated by an unnamed protagonist, a young man who lives a grim life of addiction and alcoholism, but who is also somehow funny and likable (to the reader, anyway). He is the ultimate flawed character, and his only redeeming quality throughout these stories is that he knows he’s flawed. Sometimes he tries to remedy this; often he just doesn’t. The writing has a hallucinatory quality to it, a steady stream of the subconscious that is so dead-on and piercing in its observations of surroundings and of the people the protagonist bumps up against. Continue reading

Flannery O’Connor: An Appreciation

(After reading Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch, I wrote this appreciation/review.)

I find that there is something inherently satisfying, as a writer, reading about another writer’s life – even when that writer is stratospherically in another universe of literary skill and reputation. And in Brad Gooch’s thorough and admiring 2009 biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (amazingly, the first comprehensive book-length biography of O’Connor), the reader is given a large picture window through which to view the author’s life.

That picture window gives us a view mostly of O’Connor’s life at Andalusia, the family “farm” in Milledgeville, Georgia, where O’Connor lived most of her sadly shortened adult life, and where the author honed her craft through shrewd observation and painstaking work habits. However, biographer Gooch, praised for his previous biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, also gives the reader a comprehensive and fascinating glimpse into O’Connor’s formative childhood, adolescent, and college years. Although it may be that those of us who have never spent any time in the American south are more susceptible to being charmed by southerners and their (to us) quirky lifestyles, family relationships, and un-imitatable ways of speaking. Continue reading

Beginnings…

I think that what makes me a writer is that I simultaneously want to know secret worlds, yet can’t know, so I make something up. I am always looking for answers to why life is the way it is, not only by imagining what goes on in those other lives, but by reading.

As a young reader, books showed me a vast, colorful, limitless world. A world that looked totally different than the one I happened to inhabit as a child growing up in a big family in the small brewery town of Golden, Colorado. There was nothing in those books that indicated to me that that vast, colorful world was off limits to me, an ordinary girl. The stacks and piles of literature I read – Great Expectations, The Last of the Mohicans, every single Nancy Drew book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cheaper by the Dozen, Perry Mason mysteries, Indian captive narratives, Alfred Hitchcock mysteries, The Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth – all of those and mountains more, I devoured, barely finishing one before starting the next.

In fact, I am worse now as an adult. Now I often do not finish one book before starting the next. Now I have stacks everywhere, and I am often reading five books at once. (Unless it is a new collection of stories by Alice Munro or Annie Proulx or Richard Bausch or James Salter or Richard Ford. Those I usually gobble down in one prolonged, heavenly sitting.)

Although I do favor fiction by contemporary women authors, I often go back to The Early Stories (1953-1975) by John Updike. Reading his short stories written throughout the decades of the fifties, sixties, seventies is like traveling back to those times in a time capsule and seeing life peeled open and revealed in all of its beauty and its heartbreak. I marvel and re-read. How does he make writing seem so precise and effortless at the same time?

I wrote my first short story when I was fifteen years old. I was working the register at what was then called the “five-and-dime” when suddenly I had an idea for a story. This idea (I couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what it was), filled me with such a sense of joyful purpose that I scribbled down several paragraphs on a brown paper bag in between ringing up purchases. When I got home from work I wrote my story, a story that no longer exists except that it gave me my first sense of purpose, my first real dream, other than meeting and marrying Paul McCartney.

Because of this newfound passion for writing, I became co-editor of my high school newspaper, the Golden Trident, for two years. And I continued to read. I remember in college staying up all night reading two books: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The Shining by Stephen King. Pure storytelling bliss. And I was in college, so I could sleep all the next day…

During the next several years during which I was a waitress (I seemed to specialize in restaurants that served pie), and a fitness instructor (a job that counteracted the pie), my dream of writing – of being a writer – stayed on the back burner. I still frequented the library though. No matter where I lived, and I moved a lot during my twenties, one of the first things I would do was find the library and get a library card. No matter where you live, or what kind of crummy job you have, you can always go to the library and leave with a stack of treasures to take your mind somewhere else.

Old Books Never Die

(Originally appeared in The Beach reporter on 7/11/91)

About twice a year I have to tackle the task of going through my stacks of books and recycle some of them to the library. It seems to happen overnight that there are books in every nook and cranny of the house.

From where I sit and read the newspaper every morning, I see the bookcase in the family room, its shelves groaning. There are also two stacks of books on the family room floor – one stack of library books and another stack of children’s books we own.

The coffee table is strewn with more children’s books. My children like to have books at hand so they can curl up on the family room couch at any given moment and read. So I leave the books where they are, even though it always looks messy.

Our two current favorites are Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. These two books are so well-written that I look forward to reading them as much as my children do. Every time I finish a chapter, and say that is “absolutely it for the night” they beg me, “Please, please, puhleeezze, just one more chapter.” I almost always give in. Continue reading