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.

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.

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.

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.

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.