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.

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

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