Denis 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 …
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.