Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

JesusDenis Johnson, poet, short story writer, and novelist died on the 24th of May.  Although his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke – sprawling, busy with moments of brilliance and confusing and difficult to grasp as the war itself – won the US National Book Award in 2007, for me his best work is to be found in his shorter fiction, Train Dreams (2002), set in the American West at the turn of the century, the fast and nourish Nobody Move (2009), and the collection of incendiary short stories for which I suspect he will always be best known, Jesus’ Son (1992), from which these short extracts are taken.

The Vine had no jukebox, but  real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse.’ I sobbed. She pour doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will  beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mending. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.

 

And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange colour I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fibre and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?
We put our clothes on, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.

And, finally, a poem …

PASSENGERS

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through those intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always those definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning – her languid flight of hair
travelling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die>

Sadly, not true.

Listening to Jazz – 2

 

 

This is the second of the extracts from my writing dealing explicitly with jazz, chosen by Sascha Feinstein to accompany his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal of jazz and literature, Brilliant Corners.

 

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’d been able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across the shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focused, waiting his time.

It comes from a stand alone crime novel, In a True Light, which was originally published by William Heinemann in 2001. Beginning with the release of its central character from prison …

They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday. Three years for deception, reduced on appeal to two; six months in Brixton, the remainder in Ford open prison.Naturally lean and wiry, Sloane walked out through the gates a fitter man than when he’d walked in.

A painter, the particular deception of which Sloane was found guilty was that of forgery; of late, he had found other people’s work, in his own exact interpretation, more saleable than his own. The novel works on two time frames, one in the present, following Sloane to New York in search of the daughter he never knew he had, the other tracing him back to the late 50s when he was a young, aspiring abstract expressionist painter in Greenwich Village – which is where and when he gets to listen to Monk.

In my opinion, it’s not a wholly successful novel – I’m not sure now well the different parts fuse together, the contemporary crime scenes in particular – but it does have some scenes of which I’m very fond and even, dare I say it, some writing of which I’m proud. And, of course, it gave me the opportunity to think and write about the art, jazz and poetry of New York during a period that has long held a strong fascination. Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Thelonious Monk.

“Lonely Hearts”: Resnick at the Beginning

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A quick check on AbeBooks.com suggests that copies of the Viking Press, 1979, first edition of Lonely Hearts, in fine to very fine condition, signed, can be snapped up for between $350 and $450. Whereas, anyone wishing to read the same novel on kindle, can do so, from today until June 26th, for a mere £1.99, thanks to Amazon’s Start a New Series promotion.

You pays your money, as the saying goes …

One of the questions I used to get asked quite regularly in those far off days when my publishers used to send me out on tour, my American publisher Henry Holt especially, was did I always think Lonely Hearts was going to be the first of a series? The answer being, well, yes and no. Yes, in that most of my formative pulp days had been spent working on series so it was what I was used to. [Even the novelisation of Herbie Rides Again sprouted Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.] And no, in that it had been hard enough to get this one book published, how much harder was it going to be for a bunch of them? Also, I should add on the plus side, the two most obvious [to me] and relevant inspirations for the novel were both television series, the long-running Hill St. Blues and my own relatively short-lived Hard Cases, which was, in most respects, Hill St. relocated to Nottingham and centred around the probation service rather than the police.

Which sort of takes me to a second frequently posed question: who, if anyone, is the character of Resnick based upon? To which the response used to be, he’s a lot like Captain Frank Furillo from Hill St. Blues, but dressed like Peter Falk in Columbo. A more specific model, following the Peter Falk example, would be the wonderfully fallible, hard drinking and sentimental Sgt. Valnikov, as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s film The Black Marble, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name.

Like Furillo, I saw him initially as a kind of middle-management copper, holding together, through a mixture of firmness and inspiration, a fairly disparate group of younger officers. As the series developed, however, Resnick stepped out increasingly front and centre, in part due to the fact that I was increasingly enjoying writing about him, and in part down to the positive response to him from readers.

But here’s a little taste of Charlie as he initially appears at the beginning of chapter two …

Standing under the shower, Resnick massaged shampoo into his hair as vigorously as he dared: eyes closed tight, face tilted upwards, he lowered the temperature of the water until it reached minimum. When he looked into the mirror, his breath came back to him a mixture of German beer and sweet pickled gherkins. He was the usual eight pounds over on the scales. Cats swayed around his bare legs, slid under his feet as he pulled on his dark grey trousers, dark grey socks.

And this is the first impression of him from the social worker, Rachel Chaplin, with whom he becomes involved …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

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Listening to Jazz 1

To accompany his interview with me that was published in the summer 2017 issue of Brilliant Corners, editor Sascha Feinstein chose extracts from four of my books as examples of the way I write about jazz … and the ways in which my characters, most often Charlie Resnick, listen to it.

This is Charlie and the Vic Dickenson Septet from Easy Meat

“Old Fashioned Love.” The opening growl from Vic Dickenson’s trombone sounds like the fanfare from a fairground barker, but once piano and bass have settled into their gentle stride, he nudges the melody along respectfully enough, just the odd hint of jauntiness to keep sentimentality at bay; then, rolling out from the lower register with that tart huskiness that marks his playing, Edmund Hall takes the tune through a second chorus before the clipped notes of Ruby Braff’s trumpet start to lengthen and unwind. Which is as far as Resnick gets, because now the phone is ringing and he reaches awkwardly toward it, fiddling the remote onto pause and then dropping it into his lap, where an aggrieved cat wakes with a start and jumps to the floor, one paw tipping the saucer that holds a half-finished cup of coffee growing cold …

Resnick retrieved his cup and rose to his feet, releasing the pause into the beginning of Sir Charles Thompson’s piano solo. Bud’s head nudged repeatedly against the backs of his legs as he stood there listening, the cat urging him to sit down so that he could jump onto his lap. Only after the second trumpet solo and Dickenson’s closing trombone coda, lazy but exact, did Resnick open the tray and drop the CD back into its case, switch off the stereo, carry cup and saucer into the kitchen to rinse, open the fridge on a well-honed impulse and lift out a slice of ham, warp it around the last half-inch of Emmental cheese, something to nibble while he put on his coat and hesitated in the doorway, patting his pockets for his wallet, money, keys.

The Vic Dickenson Septet recordings from the early 1950s, along with the first of the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, the one with “The Hucklebuck”, were amongst the recordings my friends and I listened to most growing up, prime examples of what was then called Mainstream Jazz.

As for the novel from which this extract is taken, I always used to say, when asked, that Easy Meat [Proie Facile in France] was my favourite of all the Resnick novels and I think that just about stands – my favourite from the first ten, at least. And why? I used to say it came closest to fulfilling my intentions when writing (though there’s a major assumption there, that I knew what those intentions were). But I do think that overall I like it because it’s the most downbeat and unforgiving and also I allow myself to say I love the ending, those closing pages in which Sheena and Dee-Dee and their pals run amok outside the bowling alley. These are the final paragraphs …

Sheena staring at the blood beginning to swell up around the man’s white belly, fascinated, and Janie, out of her head beside him, laughing.

“Come on, girl! Move it!”

Running then, leaving Janie to face the music, the first sounds of a police car approaching at speed along Canal Street and Sheena, as she allowed herself to be dragged away, turning now and stumbling, looking back and thinking, awesome, truly awesome. I mean, absolutely fucking brilliant! Brilliant, right?

And how about this cover for the Henry Holt edition? One of my absolute favourites, and designed by Raquel Jaramillo – credit where credit’s due.

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Criminal Favourites

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Hmm, a friend remarked after perusing my recent listing of the 50 books I’d most enjoyed reading since the turn of the century, not a lot of crime fiction here – for a crime writer, especially. To which I might have replied, that in itself might be reason enough. And besides, if you stretch the definition a little there are five. No, wait, six.

But here, to set things right, or achieve some sort of balance, at least, is the list of my favourite relative recent crime novels, ones I’m likely to read again … and again.

1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs
3. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark
4. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes
5. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss
6. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls
7. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies
8. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
9. Bill James: Roses, Roses
10. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River
11. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava
12. Laura Lippman: The Innocents
13. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw
14. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker
15. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
16. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour
17. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil
18. James Sallis: Drive
19. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna
20. Neville Smith: Gumshoe
21. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore
22. Peter Temple : Truth
23. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side
24. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels
25. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss

Two of those, you’ll notice, published by the late lamented Slow Dancer Press. The marvellous cover design the work of the excellent Jamie Keenan.

Angels

 

At Monk’s House …

Virginia, that is, not Thelonious. I’ve showed these photos on the blog before, but seeing Patti Smith’s black and white photographs of Monk’s House at Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday, along with others – Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, for instance – which she took in the course of a literary tour, or tours, of the country, I was prompted to post them again.

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling
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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

 

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Reading Week …

… well, more Reading Fortnight, to be accurate. It was intended to have much the same function as I guess it does during university terms: a chance to take a breather, stand back from ongoing work and take stock – and actually read a book or two.

I’d reached somewhere around the 40,000 word mark in the manuscript I’m working on, a first draft of the new Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, and needed some space in which to step away from what I’d done and consider what was to come. A chance also for a few trusted others – my agent, my partner and our daughter – to read through the existing pages and tell me what they think. Plus point out some basic errors, such as the  incorrect spelling of ‘vicious’. My other trusted and much-respected reader is, of course, my publisher, but her opinion is SO important, I have to get things in better shape before passing them before her well-honed eagle eye.

So, given the time, what was I going to read? A visit to Nottingham’s Bromley House Library provided me with Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking and Eimar McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians; Waterstones’ hip Tottenham Court Road branch was the source of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Speedboat by Renata Adler and Lee Child’s Night School.

All of which I read [well, almost all] and some of which can be dealt with quite swiftly. Although I’d found the Joycean language of McBride’s first novel, the prize-winning A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, difficult, its intensity lived with me in a positive yet disturbing way; by the time I’d reached page 77 of The Lesser Bohemians, however, I realised that I was finding the detailed accounts of her young drama student protagonist’s drinking, smoking and sex life of less interest than my recognition of the many north London street names that were frequently mentioned. Time to stop and move on.

I chose Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, because I’d enjoyed – and admired – many of his short stories so much. The first few pages of the novel are pretty good, too. After which it becomes simply irritating, any attempt at narrative flow being cast aside in favour of a succession of brief extracts from the presumably fictional works of memoirists and biographers, so that, in reading, you find yourself stepping awkwardly down page after page as if participating in some half-arsed attempt to show there is no such thing in fiction as one true point of view. Really? I never would have realised. Back to the short stories, George.

Heavens, you must be thinking, you must have enjoyed something?

Well, yes. And I didn’t think I was going to like A Line Made By Walking at all [even though I do like very much the piece of land art by Richard Long from which the title is taken] and had, in fact, borrowed it so that my partner could read it. I mean, the story, told in the first person, of a former history of art student who retreats to her late grandmother’s country cottage because she’s finding urban life too difficult – and then takes pictures of dead animals which are reproduced here and there in the text – Come on!

Reader, I loved it! Well, okay, liked it a great deal. Without having the same off-the-wall, up-yours humour, it kept reminding me of Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, which, as anyone familiar with this blog will know, was my favourite novel of the past twelve months or so. Another book about a young woman who chooses solitude and writes about it. That aside, I’m hard-pressed to say why I enjoyed A Line Made By Walking as much as I did. It’s something to do with the clarity of the prose, the direct description of experience; something to do with the slow unveiling of her feelings; a great deal, I imagine, to do with the fact that inside me there beats the slow but strong desire to follow in Baume’s protagonist’s footsteps and hie myself off to an otherwise empty cottage in the middle of nowhere [the Penwith Peninsula and the North York Moors come to mind] and do nothing much more than tramp around and generally indulge myself in a greater degree of self-absorbed thought than is usually the case. [isn’t that why writers become writers anyway?]

As if to prove I don’t only respond well to books that are clearly written, relatively straightforward and non-experimental, I also very much enjoyed Renata Adler’s Speedboat. [Not to mention, in the past, and more than once – or twice – the novels of Virginia Woolf, clear, direct and, in their day, experimental.]

Like the later Pitch Dark, Speedboat comes close to not being a novel at all [or, at least, a novel as E. M. Forster or Walter Allen would have understood it]. Ostensibly following the jagged progress of a journalist across the United States, it does so by way of a series of not always clearly connected observations and anecdotes that ricochet off one another. A mode of writing that might seem to be in danger of falling into the same trap which swallowed up Saunders in his stilted peregrinations around Lincoln. But the writing is too sharp for that, the observations too brilliant, too funny, too savage.

In his Afterword, Guy Trebay refers to the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who said that the dominant cultural figure of our time is the deejay (DJ?), an suggestion Adler apparently responded to positively. “It is easy to miss the point,” Trebay says.”that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter. … Speedboat is a book without suspense or anything like a distinct plot, a novel whose protagonist is one whose telephone conversations often sound like dialogue from Beckett … a book in which time and tense are unstable, event is compressed, morality subject to constant revision … ”

Adler herself said ” “I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read – which is narrative, thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen and things you do not. I found I didn’t seem to be doing that. I thought, ‘Well, now what do I do?'”

What she did, it seems to me, was to create a style more or less all her own, and, in Speedboat and Pitch Dark, two distinctive books that repay re-reading.

What she might have liked to have written, if her remarks are to be taken at face value, could well be something like the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Childs, of which Night School is the most recent and the twenty first. “I know I say this every year … ” Karin Slaughter is quoted on the cover … “But. Best. Reacher. Ever.” Her caps, not mine, and sadly, far from true.

I’ve read almost all the Reacher books and enjoyed them a great deal; you know what you’re going to get and what you get is pretty damn good. [For interest’s sake and since you’re bound to ask, my personal favourite is The Hard Way.] But Night School just doesn’t do it for me. Set mostly in Berlin in the mid-1990s, there’s a sub-LeCarre espionage plot that doesn’t quite convince and too many conflicting layers of US secret service and security from the West Wing on down than are usefully necessary. I appreciate the need Childs must feel to find new territories and different situations for his hero, but this takes Jack Reacher too far out of his comfort zone and somehow it doesn’t really work. Which won’t stop me reading number twenty two, the first chapters of which are conveniently packaged in the back of the paperback edition of Night School, and show Reacher back on more familiar ground.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned packaging, let me point to the New York Review Books editions of the two Adler novels, both featuring details from Helen Frankenthaler paintings. Beautiful, just beautiful.

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Brilliant Corners

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“Jazz Night at the Bedlam Bar” Thomas Van Stein, 2004

Brilliant Corners, a journal, as it says, of jazz and literature, is published by Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA 17701, USA, and edited by Sascha Feinstein. Poetry, prose, in-depth interviews.

The current issue includes poems by Billy Collins and Barry Wallenstein (whose gig at the Vortex with the Mike Hobart Band is still a vivid memory) and a lengthy – 20 pages – interview Sascha Feinstein conducted with me here in London  last October.

Starting with my early experiences of listening to jazz and the heady days in which I played tea chest bass in what might just have been the world’s worst skiffle band, Sascha goes on to explore the connections between Resnick and jazz, both as a character trait and as an influence on the books themselves. There’s some discussion about the fairly frequent occurrence of jazz in my short fiction – stories like Now’s the Time and Minor Key – and the importance of jazz in the work of other writers such as Bill Moody and Michael Connelly.

Around the time of the interview, I’d just come back from a short tour of Nottinghamshire Libraries, reading some of my more jazz-based poetry, plus a Resnick extract or two, with the band, Blue Territory, so, inevitably, we talked about Poetry and Jazz, its beginnings, and why it can be so rewarding to perform. (See Wallenstein & Hobart above.)

For any students out there searching for a research topic in the area of jazz and crime fiction, this interview, taken together with Age Hedley Peterson’s Jazz i crime literature – Resnick and all that jazz, published in the April/May/June 2016 issue of the Danish magazine Jazz Special, and reprinted in translation herewould be a pretty good place to start.

 

 

On Reading … & Walking …

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve had a book on the go – one after another – an unbroken chain from Winnie-the-Poo to Salman Rushdie. There are so many left behind here in my grandmother’s bungalow; publication dates to span her entire life. Every evening after I’ve eaten, I make myself open one and read, for a while, and then lay the book down spine up on the sofa cushions at the page where I stopped.
The trick to keeping going is break going into bursts: to stop, and otherwise occupy my brain for a spell, and then start going again. Nowadays I apply this to my whole day long. Each is a succession of shallow occupations, enforced intervals. Even my sleep is only ankle deep, interrupted.
Sarah Baume : A Line Made by Walking, William Heinemann 2017

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Richard Long : A Line Made By Walking, 1967

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Darkness Across the Channel …

One of the distinct and, thankfully, long-lasting pleasures, not to say sources of pride, in my writing life has been being published in France by François Guérif in Rivages/Noir, the collection that he founded and continues to direct for Éditions Payot & Rivages, and which includes such writers as James Lee Burke, Robin Cook, James Elroy, David Goodis, George V. Higgins, Tony Hillerman, Bill James, Elmore Leonard, William McIlvanney, Ross Thomas, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake and Daniel Woodrell. Who would not be proud to be a part of such a list?

Beginning with Lonely Hearts [Coeurs Solitaires] in 1993, François has accorded me the honour of publishing all of my crime fiction written since that time in the Rivages/Noir series – looking at my shelves, some 22 books in all – in addition to the short story, Billie’s Blues, which was published as a slim volume in 2002.

Written expressly for François and Rivages/Noir, and published originally in a French translation by Jean-Paul Gratias, Billie’s Blues is a Resnick story which opens with the discovery of a body on the Forest, the broad area of inner city parkland which hosts the annual Goose Fair. This is how it begins …

Angels, that was what he thought. The way she lay on her back, arms spread wide, as if making angels in the snow. The front of her coat tugged aside, feet bare, the centre of her dress stained dark, fingers curled.  A few listless flakes settled momentarily on her face and hair. Porcelain skin. In those temperatures she could have been dead for hours or days. The pathologist would know.

Straightening, Resnick glanced at his watch. Three forty-five. Little over half an hour since the call had come through. Soon there would be arc lights, a generator, yellow tape, officers in coveralls searching the ground on hands and knees. As Anil Khan, crouching, shot off the first of many Polaroids, Resnick stepped aside. The broad expanse of the Forest rose behind them, broken by a ragged line of trees. The city’s orange glow.

Billie’s Blues can be found in two Arrow paperbacks, Now’s The Time and A Darker Shade of Blue, as well as, if you’re fortunate to find a copy, Minor Key, a limited edition hardback from Nottingham’s Five Leaves Publications.

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The twelfth and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, partly set during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, was first published in France as Ténèbres, Ténèbres in a large format paperback in the Rivage/Thriller series in 2015, and is now being republished in the smaller Rivages/Noir format.

“Ténèbres, Ténèbres est de bout en bout passionnant, émouvant et réaliste.”
Bernard Poirette, RTL

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