Atlantic Monthly Tree of Smoke Review

I was surprised to read BR Myers review of Denis Johnsons latest novel in the Atlantic. I cannot comment on the accuracy nor can I refute any points Myers makes because I am only around a hundred or so pages in to the book.

Myers writes: “When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.”

Ouch! I mean not only is Myers attacking the book–and I didn’t think the article was that persuasive in its critique–but Myers also attacks Phillip Roth’s and Jonathon Franzen’s blurbs.

He writes: “The “application of word to thing” has been rotting for some time now, and in the very terms described. The social and political consequences are all around us. Literati who contribute to the rot—whether to preserve a writer’s reputation, to stimulate the book market, or simply to go with the flow—have no right to complain about incoherent government. The next time they want to praise a bad book, they should rave about the plot instead.”

So it seems his criticism is of those who praise Johnson and do not criticize the book’s form and plot. There is even a funny cartoon lampooning Johnson’s characters from the book like a political cartoon. Now, again, I have not read all of the book. I do think, though, that Johnson is not as strong with longer narratives than he is with sprinting but Myers admits to only reading one book from Johnson and that book is Tree of Smoke. So, since I have read all of Johnson’s 15 books–the poetry and the non-fiction as well as the fiction, I do agree with the blurbs. Johnson’s voice and sensibility is noteworthy. I read him for the craft so I guess I am saying he is a writer’s writer. But I don’t believe Roth and Franzen are bad readers; I don’t believe I am a bad reader.

And yet Myers calls Franzen a lunatic and writes Roth should “know better.”

Again, ouch! And I assume I should wait until I finish the book before going further with my defense. But so far I am engaged and entertained as the Vietnam War is something I am interested in and I am enjoying how Johnson brings Vietnamese perspectives into the story–something Tobias Wolf in his non-fiction does not do and something Nicholas Delbanco never did. But, again, I am not done and should wait and hold my judgment..

Date Fail:
I just read the correct date on this article. It was not published in the Dec 2008 issue of the Atlantic but rather the 2007 issue. I am right on the cutting edge of what’s going on, you know.

Sundays and Allan Brothers Coffee

If you know anything about me, you know I love coffee. And I guess it didn’t begin in the Northwest or in Oregon sepcifically. Perhaps all those fishing trips as a young moco and all those thermoses of coffee got me. Or maybe the first expresso drinks I was introduced to at Colorado State and then later in Riverside, CA at the Pie Store with the Tia. And then later in graduate school the expresso coffee became fuel to stay up and get the work done. And also the drinks became the tool to connect with other writers.

The first Sunday began when Kim and Stine–fellow failed writers–asked me to meet them on a Sunday morning to talk about writing and talk about our shared workshop and lit classes. Rowan was there too with a few other writers I believe–my memory is cloudy. But the core by the end of the term was me, Rowan, Stine and Kim. They helped me in such powerful ways I can’t explain. But their felowship and collaboration and commiseration was so important for me and my creative process. I see that now. But I don’t mean to sentimentalize those sessions but I do see just how important those relationships were. But I miss the sharing of sensibilities and aesthetics–the rhetoric.

Instead of Americanos or skinny lattes I developed relationships with the strongest practical readers and practical writers I have since been trying to reproduce. In fact, I want to put together an online writing group and call it something like Failed Writers.org or some such title. I’d love to try and recreate some of those Sunday meetings even though we have all split up and let work and real lives take us away from Second Street. But at least I would love us to spend a few hours a month posting thoughts on writing or books or complaints on writing and books in general. I guess I am just not satisfied with random phone calls and social networking in place of actual connection. And I guess it is my fault for moving away but I needed to teach and pay my bills.

Anway, I had such fond memories of those Sundays with my fellow grad students I stole a mug from the Allan Bros coffee shop on Second Street. Sorry, Allan Brothers. Anyway, a few days before I left I just wanted a piece of the place. I could have bought one but taking the cup from my last writing group session seemed like the right thing to do.

Factotum and Failure:

I am lucky because I am able to teach Factotum by Bukowski this spring–along with On the Road and Oscar Wao. Each one of these books focuses on a writer’s creative literacy and also their individaul failure and successes.

And I am always inspired by Bukowski’s words on writing as creation and failure: “If you are going to try, go all the way.” This clip from the film adaptation by director Bent Hamer shows how well done the movie was–the broken down locations and look of the film is amazing. And I worried about the choice of Dillon–especially since I did not enjoy Barfly and the choice of Mickey Rourke. And from what I read neither did Bukowski–I think that came up in the documentary Born into This.

But the poem roll the dice ends the film so eloquently.

Johnson’s Tree of Smoke

I finally have a break from the incredible work of teaching and grading. Just last week I felt the great pressure of lesson-planning and grading taking over my life. Teaching affords me the luxury of a writing life and I am so grateful but sometimes you need time to do your laundry and take your dog for a walk. I read and teach composition and literature for a living and I am allowed to create curricula and assignments with such freedom but sometimes you need a window to climb out of. (That is a line from my favorite Richard Yates short story.)

But I finally have a break for Thanksgiving and now I have a chance to read some newer books I have had on-deck for weeks. I finished the Pollock and now I can finish the daunting book Tree of Smoke by one of my favorite writers Denis Johnson. Another writer I mentioned in my own thesis defense. I have been waiting to read this book for months it seems–waiting forthe paperback because I hate to read hardback but I’ll save that discussion for another post. But I do admire his work and recently I found the book was a National Book Award winner and at the awards ceremony his wife received the award for him as he was in Iraq on assignment.

I have admired all of Johnson’s work–his creative non-fiction, poetry, plays and fiction. He is another in a list of writers who I enjoy their authorial voice and not just the genre they work in. I feel Johnson excels in many genres and thrives within his creative literacy no matter the form. Sam Shepard is another who has stated his work just comes out and he rarely forces the genre–the authorial mind and voice chooses the form.

Anyway, I remember the first Johnson book I read. It was in New York State on the 8th floor of the dorm/housing I was living in. My friend Hanvey from California lent me the book Jesus’ Son for an afternoon and I devoured it. I remember Hanvey had his books in a cardboard box in his trunk and he had just driven across country to attend the writer’s workshop. He gave it to me as if it were a treasure he was sharing with a fellow writer. It made me feel good to connect with another writer in that way.

And I have read all of Johnson’s work since then. Angels created the same tragic lives as in Jesus’ Son; Resuscitation of a Hanged Man was such a departure from what I thought his work was–a real shift in narrative; Already Dead was so funny and mysterious and showed me a real scope to his storytelling. More of a test with means of perception; Stars at Noon reminded me of Didion’s Salvador even though that was non-fiction; and his non-fiction in the book Seek showed me that he has a feel for narrative form and creativity in approaching literary journalism or creative non-fiction–whatever you want to call it. I also found his poetry so interesting and full of interesting leaping–it should be of no surprise since his prose is so poetic and imagistic at times.

Recently, I even toyed with the idea of a Playboy subscription because of his essays out of Iraq. I’ll have to wait for the collected work for those I guess since I don’t have the time or patience or nerve to hunt those back issues down at the public library or on the Playboy website–yes, for the articles. I pretty much chickened out asking about the issues at the local newstand and Barnes and Noble.

But I am looking forward to getting away from the brain of schoolwork and the tedium of interoffice politics in exchange for the time to read this novel and follow his characters’ journeys. The book is about 600 pages so I have a chore ahead but I enjoy the task. I feel like I am learning from him as I read.

Kerouac and Visions of Cody

It would take all day and night to explain how I feel about Kerouac and his book Visions of Cody. I read this book for the first time during a very dificult time in life–and really the Dharma Bums was the first book of Kerouac I ever experienced even though critics consider it the lesser novel in comparison to On the Road. I’m not about to go on about those times here when I first picked up these books, but I can write that the legend or romanticized version of Neal Cassady is something I am more and more obsessed with. And my thoughts on Kerouac and this book go way past admiration or scholarship–the study of form or prose models which I feel is so important for the writer. But I connected with Kerouac in a way I’ve not connected with many living writers. Including my beloved Salinger and Crane.

Perhaps I feel like Kerouac at the end of On the Road and it is as simple as ‘I think of Dean Moriarty.’ Because I do think of Dean Moriarity and Cody much more than I think of Neal Cassady. In fact from Carolyn Cassady’s books Neal was a horrible role model and was perhaps a horrible person not quite living up to the persona developed by Kerouac. But I love the character Kerouac builds in the work much more than the person I research.

And as I sit and write this I think of the last time I spoke with Lolo–my unofficial obsession in fictive spaces. So perhaps I am in love with the fictionalized Lolo the way I have always been taught to love my characters. The love that is needed to follow them and create their lives in prose and narrative.

For example, here is an example of the care and eye that Kerouac has for Cassady from Visions of Cody that is my thoughts tonight: ‘Oh life, who is that? There are some young men you look at who seem completely safe, maybe just because of a Scandanavian ski sweater, angelic, saved; on a Cody Pomeray it immediately becomes a dirty stolen sweater worn in wild sweat.’

I think of this quote as I write about Lolo and his blue worn t-shirt and his sunglasses and cigarettes in the torn pocket over his big heart. How hard I try to get the detail right so people can see the Lolo I have seen and experienced. Like Tracy Daugherty writes–I want the readers to experience the character alive in the fictive space as they would the real person. I think of the love I have for Lolo and Ricardo and people gone from my immediate life who live on in fictive spaces. Who live on in the old neighborhood of my head. I get to meet them there and love them in a way the real world won’t allow me to.

But also I think Lolo and Cassady as real mean and not the fictionalized characters have so much in common. They are both legitimate psychopaths as Norman Mailer I think wrote about. They both capture the illigitimate and the failure to create a understandable life for themselves and those around but also they represent a wildness and an enviable lack of respect for authority and order that I feel is healthy in moderation. I think this because Cassady like Lolo did try and better himself at one time. The failure or toughness that comes from excessive failure caught up with them and perhaps that is what I fear and what I obsess over.

Wallace Stegner’s Journey

I had a great conversation about Wallace Stegner the other day with a student. Stegner wrote in an essay that the short story is like a journey–a journey not for the reader but for the character. I mentioned this to the student who like all of us at one time or the other finds himself stuck with a story. This happens to me so much I want to create a name for it. I call it ‘Stegneritis’. (This seems to also come from the notion in Tim Obrien’s thought that the more we understand and know about writing the harder it is to do.) But this is also the condition where you just know you must send your character on a journey to find a meaning he or she desperately wants or needs but you can’t seem to get exactly how this is to happen. A failure to set Stegner’s principle into action.

Now, Stegner’s opening story of the collected short stories is called “the Traveler” and I surmise Stegner puts this aesthetic of the journey into action. He opens the story with a barren landscape and a broken down car–some of his best stories begin this way with the broken down and so all of my stories try to open with this–and he also intriduces us to a traveling salesman lost and in need of a telephone. Our maincharacter is stuck in a heavy snow and also buried in regret over work and the amount of time on the road. And that is where the journey begins. The salesman walks and finds a horse and then finds a farmhouse and then finds a young boy crying and nursing a grandfather back to health. Now because Stegner is so good at giving us a close 3rd person objective lens we are immersed in the traveling through the snow. And also the salesman who at one point is wishing for adventure and is complaining about the monotony of his work, by the end of the story has found himself responsible for a life, a boy and a horse. The comfort of a car replaced with a horse and wagon–the modern or the comfortable exchanged for the natural and the life or death of survival in nature in the harsh weather.

In this story like a lot of his stories a character has journeyed through to find something that the character needs and wants but had no idea how to get there in the opening. I like to think the character and the author journeyed together to find the resolution. Like Hugo states in Triggering Town, get off the subject and find the heart of the story–hell, just find the story. Find the interaction between characters and find the true place of the story apart from the setting and the landscape. In a way the author and the character find this place together.

This is the advice I told my student. To get over the Stegneritis and find that journey that the character needs. He wasn’t impressed. Easier said than done, right. But that seems essential to finding the heart of the character. To finding the feeling of a character. To find the heart and the reality of a character. To experience the character and their movement.

And I do understand because in my own writing this is very dificult to do. Theme always seems to compete with characterization.

In my own writing, I know Cornbread wants to be with his daughter and I know he wants money and some sort of status to build his reputation–he wants to be in the service of the Catholic Church represented by St Francis and Father Dwyer. He wants to make-up with his ex and also he wants to be left alone to have a good time. All at the same time. My problem is how to get him there in a compelling and dynamic way.

Knockemstiff Review

I finished the book Knockemstiff the other night and I wanted to write notes on these stories I am admiring more and more.

I am also interested in the story behind the story “Knockemstiff”–almost as interesting as the stories and I assume that is why this book has gotten quite a bit of press and reviews.

According to his book sleeve and this video from Ohio State’s web site, Pollock was a factory worker before quitting to attend the MFA program. He published several stories and was successful enough to quit his job. His book has received much acclaim. I first heard about it on the Chuck Palahniuk web site–one reason I go there because Palahniuk is always pointing out new writers and writers that have influenced him in some way. (That was how I found Amy Hempel.) But in fact, Palahniuk wrote “Pollock gives us the saddest people we’ll ever meet in fiction.”

This made me think of Lolo and the failure of my own writing!

What attracted me and hooked me into these stories was the sense of place and indirect communal relationships–also the peripheral relationships. Pollock writes about Ohio and the little town of Knockemstiff–and he knows place so well and I am envious. In fact, place doesn’t quite capture what I mean; I guess I mean the landscape. And I would like to know Huerfano or at least the Pueblo County and the Huerfano County I grew up in and match Pollock’s knowledge of place.

The title story “Knockemstiff” is so memorable for me. The story follows a character who has had several false starts leaving Knockemstiff, Ohio and has come to the realization he will not leave Ohio even though his highschool love is about to leave town. There is such a feel of small town blues and hurt. Pollock draws his characters failure to move forward or beyond the small town as such a loss the effect is heartbreaking.

Those are meaning thoughts though and so my thoughts on form are that he is doing something pretty complex with these first person stories. A student and I sat in my office just last week discussing the differences of third and first person stories and the advantages of different means of perceptions. Third person omniscient and even roaming third or third objective seems like such a wide scope and according to my student was the only thing he ever wrote in. I tried to convince him that first person can be ust as evocative in capturing not just thought process but also consciousness. My student was just informing me of preference but again I think there is much about first person that works so well–like in Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or in Diaz’ Drown.

We talked about the risk of being the character and also being the author and trying to interject meaning or theme instead of character rather than more subtleties. But writing from a certain pov is about practice and challenging the individual.

But Pollock seems to do that so well–he knows place and character of his small towns but he also knows when and where to direct reader to theme and meaning without being too overt as some of my first person stories become.

Once in Tracy Daugherty’s office he pointed to a moment in one of my stories and said “here it is. Right there.” I asked him “what?” And then he explained that at that moment in the story and scene where the character is disconnected from the author and being fully utilized–fully created. Meaning the voice is a character rather than just the author pretending. he said, “Your character has no idea what is going to happen or cannot see past his own nose like real life and that is good.” I have been searching for those moments in my first person stories and trying to capitlaize on them as much as possible.

And this is what Pollock is doing so well in his stories. Capturing character in first person rather than just capturing his own voice just telling stories.

Heaney and Failure of Memory

This morning I am thinking about Heaney and his essay “Feeling into Words”. I first read it in Hochman’s poetry class. This essay lists a bit of Heaney’s aesthetic and some of his obsessions. We are reading it in my poetry class.

In this essay Heaney explicates his poem Digging and explains how the idea of cultural digging for meaning is the same as a personal digging or sifting through memories and connections with his pen is just as noble and powerful as physical labor. This makes me think of the Abuelito who laughed after my second degree when I still couldn’t find full-time employment and my short stories and writings were continually failing to do much. Well much in terms of money or status as Abuelito would see it.

So I think of Heaney this morning as I find myself struggling to stay focused on the Cornbread Baca project. When I find myself stuck with the direction and the sensibility to approach the ideas I have. Just get it down as Cisneros advises. But some mornings you just can’t. You think too hard about what you’re trying to say and how to approch a scene and blah blah blah.

But Heaney speaks of models and word play and triggers that got him going. Also he implies that the notion of representing a culture drivees or motivates him to write or continue to dig. I sit patiently this morning and wait for those triggers. Heaney in this interview with Charlie Rose also admits that writing for him is mostly remembering and finding those original feelings or perceptions.

My first reaction is that I am continually amazed what is available on youtube or on the internet. I remember back in the day you missed a program and that was it. It never turned up again if you missed it. Yes, there were re-runs but interviews or programs such as this seemed only for the prepared. This has changed as I find more and more in terms of educational materials/interviews available online.

My second reaction is to agree that writing–at least for me–is about remembering and reflecting on the old neighborhood and my own high school experiences and my family experiences. But I do believe the idea of creating the conscience of a race like Joyce states in A Portrait of the Artist —another text that Heaney alludes to in his essay–seems ambitious and pretentious but a strong motivator. Especially when I feel no one is telling the stories from Pueblo and Huerfano Counties.

Failure at the Steel Mill

The failed novel Huerfanos I finished this summer is about the steel mill in Pueblo, CO and my Tio Lolo and Abuelito Jaramillo–their failed relationships and failed attempts at legitimate life and work. My failed connections with the Jaramillo side of my family. The book is really an imagining of the old neighborhood as Lolo and his brother Relles would have experienced it. The way Lolo and my father would have experienced it–a study of stories I heard growing up and the mythologizing that inevitably happens when you write about anything that means so much to you. Like the way Kerouac imagines Neal Cassady as opposed tot he real Neal Cassady I have read about in Cassady’s wife’s work and writing.

And when you are on Spruce you can just feel that sense of broke-down-ness that I can’t explain except that has always been the trigger for me. The trigger to imagine Lolo nad his upbringing. I imagine his work at the coke plant and his long shifts and broken down body. The way he watched his television on Spruce Street and smoked his cowboy killers. The kitchen there and the smell of cooking pots of beans and the frying of onions–the old man always loved to fry onions.

I also imagine the way Lolo never quite fit in to that world of work the way his father fit in. The way he had plans for Denver and Kansas. This is of course the pretend Lolo. The fictionalized Lolo. So Lolo if you are out there I am sorry but I have to write about you. The same way I have to write about Cornbread Baca and his failed realtionships–his crimes in those relationships.

The real steel mill is down to about 1000 workers and according to the local paper is close to laying off more of those workers. More failed attempts at work and income for families seemingly to come. I know so well that feeling when you can’t do for your own and can’t succeed at your chosen field. When you simply can’t find work or happiness. This is the link that brings Lolo–real and imagined–together for me. This feeling of failure in work and in life is what connects my life to Lolo’s life. Whether in life or in writing.

Failure and Negativity

Failure as it relates to writing does not mean I am negative. Does it?

I’ve had people tell me I am negative. The ex-girlfriend and my sister told me I was always focusing on the negative. And I do believe I am a pessimist as it relates to a range of topics. Religion. Politics. Race relations. History. My own actions.

But Mike Rose writes about failed education and failed literacy as a phenomenological study of literacy. A focus on writing or education as it is as opposed to how we want to prescribe it to be. And I believe that is what I am doing with these thoughts. And I must remind myself to focus on the neccessitites of revision as well as the wants for revision. To look at the work objectively. To assess my own work. To tweak my own asthetic.

To learn from failure. To wear my failure with pride as the fail blog advises. Or to learn from my mistakes as Gail Godwin states. To make myself a better person as I draft as well as a better writer. I like the sound of that. But I do admit to obsessing about those failures as well as a resistance to calling failures art. Unlike Jean Cocteau. That’s art school stuff Lolo would never approve of.

Bukowski said that the final judge of writing is the writer–not critics or editors or even the reader. He writes in Factotum that the writer believes the reader’s accolades instead of being skeptical of them. The writing must serve the audience, yes. The writing must serve the MFA thesis committee. But the revision must serve the writing. This is what I try to engage and coerce within my own writing mind and within my classes. Revision not just being for the school or the instructor. But revision for the writer. A sense that we should never be satisfied with our drafts–until we abandon them as the cliche goes.


So I don’t believe I am negative. I write every day and do not feel I am negative or not as my failed relationships in life have suggested. I am pushed by my failures and pushed to revise by my failure to create the fictive spaces I desire to create. And does this mean I am focusing on the negative. No. I am learning about my enemies as Rage Against the Machine advises. Learning about my enemies and my failures.

More on failed writing to come…