THIS POST IS INEXCUSABLY LATE. IT WAS A ROUGH SUMMER. IT’S BEEN A ROUGHER FALL. ANYWAY, LET’S ROCK.
Hey, warning: copious name-dropping ensues in the following text. I can’t help it. This is my Denis Johnson story: fact, not fiction. Denis wrote about weirdos and losers burning at the edge of town, weirdos and losers burning at the edge of everything. I’m one of those weirdos and losers. Denis saw right through me. His sentences blasted my shadow on the concrete. Here we go.
IN THE FALL OF 1986 I was 21 years old and trying to write a dystopian novel called RUIN. (A dystopian novel! Jesus Christ, what a concept!) Anyway, my immediate readers—friends, slackers, poseurs, weirdos, losers—they all shook their heads and said, “Who the fuck is going to want to read this?”
Well, my teachers read RUIN and liked it. My teachers at the time were Peggy Rambach, onetime wife of Andre Dubus, and Robert Waukenon of The Art Institute of Boston. And they both said to me, independent of each other, “Go read Denis Johnson.”
God, I wish Denis could read this. He’d be amused.
Let me clarify: when Peggy Rambach and Robert Waukenon told me to go read Denis Johnson, they were in NO WAY likening my sentences to Denis Johnson’s. BUT they recognized what I was aiming for—the darkness, the yearning, the passion.
Peggy recommended that I should read Denis’ first novel, ANGELS. I had to special-order it. The special order took months. It was worth the wait.
“Dazzling and savage.” Indeed. Denis Johnson’s ANGELS ripped me to shreds. SHREDS. What a book. What words. Holy shit, Peggy Rambach had ushered me into an arena I wasn’t fit to enter.
Waukenon suggested I read Denis’ second novel, FISKADORO.
Like the rest of the world, I didn’t like FISKADORO. “Curse of the second novel,” which is a myth I do not buy into, it’s nonsense. For example, Iian Banks’ second novel, Walking On Glass is infinitely superior to The Wasp Factory. But at the end of the day FISKADORO just didn’t work. As much as I wanted to like it, I didn’t.
“Daring” is putting it mildly. I’ve never read a text written by a man more convincing in conjuring of the voice of a woman than The Stars at Noon. What… balls. no screwy pun intended. I wouldn’t have even tried such a feat.
JESUS’ SON hit the reading/writing community like an ELE (Extinction Level Event) slamming the planet. Suddenly, everybody fucking loved Denis Johnson! Writers, readers, and editors whom I loved and respected were all over him like Uncle’s Day at a whorehouse, an indelicate but accurate comparison. It was sick. But no one made me sicker and madder than Gordon fucking Lish.
For those not in the know, Gordon Lish’s chief claim to fame is to have “discovered” Raymond Carver— a claim Carver himself came to vehemently refute, going as far as commanding Random House to forbid Lish from editing his final books.
Lish was my editor, my publisher, and my “employer,” ha. I would show up at his office early in the day and do all his slave work, and all the other editors in Random House (Knopf, baby) would walk by Lish’s office and shout, “GIVE BOUCHER SOME MONEY, GORDON.”
He never did.
Anyway, when Denis Johnson hit the planet like an ELE around 1991, 1992, 1993, Lish was THE BIGGEST poseur, like he was in on Denis from the start. He wasn’t. Not even close. Which really incredibly pissed me off—Lish was just following the fucking crowd, the same way way he did a year before when Cormac McCarthy made it really big with ALL THE PRETTY HORSES and Lish crowed and crowed that McCarthy made Faulkner look like “a punk.” (He didn’t. Not even close.)
Which led me to an important realization: despite Lish’s self-delusion that he was a trail-blazer, Gordon Lish revealed himself as a follower, a fucking privileged white boy coming from money and literary snobbery— a liar, a faker, a ghost.
Denis Johnson was a real man, man. He ate, bled, shat, fucked and wept like a real man.
These are all of his books:
Crying as I finish this. Goddamn it. God fucking damn it.