Going down darkly with Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.

I was reminded of his genius when I saw that this last book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose winner will be announced next month.

I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.

I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”

Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”

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A few things revving me up

I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:

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Richard Serra sculptures at Dia: Beacon, New York

Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”; the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.

Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:

  • Jade Bird

Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury. 

Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.

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In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:

“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”

It’s a kind of sublime whiplash.

(Watch her HERE.)


  • “Capernaum”

His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12. 

In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.

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Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.

“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures. It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.

(Trailer HERE.)


  •  “Asymmetry”

Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.

I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)

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The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)

And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.

Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.

The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:

“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.

The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”


  • “United Skates” 

In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.

With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.

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Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.

Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.

(Starting Feb. 18 on HBOTrailer HERE.)

‘When writing is fun, it’s not very good.’

I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good. If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”

— Russell Baker, journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, who died in January

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway 

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I’m not eavesdropping, really …

Recently here I chatted up the new local cafe, the exquisitely hip, I’ve-been-to-India, dump-Trump joint with the jaunty name. I decided to pop into the other local cafe, that name-brand one that just reopened after long renovation. I’m there now — I write in cafes often, a living cliché — and I’m people-watching with a touch of eavesdropping. It’s not at all creepy.

I see a poised, pert, put-together brunette chirping quietly with her friend — hale, happy twentysomethings talking about job interviews and uproarious Facebook posts. She looks like she loves dinner parties and charades. She fancies a good daiquiri. Her favorite TV show is “This Is Us.” I’m just surmising, but I know I’m right.

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A hypothetical cafe scene. They look ecstatic.

Elsewhere overheard: “You know, Mary, I’m not comfortable making those calls.” 

Enter: a 60-ish gent in a baggy Bill Cosby sweater, with stubble that looks like powdered sugar sprinkled on his pink pate. “I begin my teaching tomorrow. Seventy students!” he tells his companion, a flute-thin young woman with lank auburn hair who, I’m certain, is a teacher’s assistant. 

The fellow is loud and a roaring bore. He gesticulates like a madman. She sips some coffee and it goes down the wrong pipe. The ensuing coughing fit is something to behold. Napkins fly. We sympathize.

“We’re getting off track here,” an elderly woman laughs. She’s talking to a slightly younger woman at a corner table about scheduling some sort of meeting at her home. “Should we do RSVPs?” the younger woman asks. 

I soon gather they’re organizing a book club. They are perusing a list of titles. The younger woman describes a book that’s “very well-written” that sounds like a kind of real estate thriller. The authors Andre Dubus III and Michael Frayn (“He’s British”) are mentioned. “The person who selects the book is the host of the meeting,” says the younger woman.

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I want to chime in and suggest the novel I just finished, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez’s brisk, deceptively simple yet profound meditation on the writer’s life and friendships between people and dogs and people and people. It won the 2018 National Book Award. It’s lovely.

I pick the book. I’ll be the host. I’ll serve baked Alaska.

Someone just said “hypothesize” in mixed company. 

I ask the barista what she’s reading these days — we often yack about books — and she flashes her copy of the novel “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s 1991 cult smash. I kind of wrinkle my nose while evincing interest, and tell her I tried and failed to read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning epic “The Goldfinch.” I read about half and put it down. The novel is divisive: You love it or loathe it.

She adores it. “What didn’t you like about it?” she asks. I thought it was cutesy, candied, implausible, whimsical and too redolent of Dickens. 

“It is Dickensian,” the barista says, and with that simple word my day is made.

Elephant adoption — it’s a real thing. Two ladies are talking about it. One explains that it costs $50 a year to adopt an African pachyderm and “each month they email you a picture and an update about your elephant.” She has an elephant. “I went to visit the orphanage in Nairobi,” she says. I suddenly want an elephant. 

“It’s my parents’ 43rd anniversary,” a 30-ish guy tells his friend. “That’s a long time to be sniffin’ someone else’s toots.” 

I missed most of the soliloquy, but a youngish man was rhapsodizing about coffee and espresso and the joys of sitting on his porch, and out of his mouth popped this phrase: “the waking beauty of life.”

Spectacular.

On reading and writing: quote of the day

Following my prior post about being a writer, I resort to the pith and punch of William Faulkner who said that anyone who wants to be a writer should be a reader first:

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

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And if you want to be a great writer, you must absolutely smoke a pipe.

The queasy leap of calling oneself a writer

I hate saying I’m a writer. I hate the way people’s faces light up, as though I’ve told them my secret kink. Oooh, a writer. How one expects them to follow up with la-de-da and a twirl.”

Bethany Marcel at Literary Hub 

What’s so bad about that? I’d love to get a trill and twirl when I tell people I’m a writer. 

I half joke, because I get where Marcel is coming from. Saying you’re a writer is a slightly loaded statement, even a bit mortifying. As Marcel notes in her Literary Hub essay “How to Say ‘I’m a Writer’ and Mean It,” people always want more information: What do you write? What books have you written?

They get nosy. The perceived glamor attached to the writer’s life entrances. Sometimes people are lightly starry-eyed. Other times they’re simply curious. Other times: meh.

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But it’s not so simple. Saying you write is like saying you act, or tame lions. It’s exotic. It’s oft-misunderstood. Writers are outliers, and sometimes writers believe all the romantic rubbish that attends the title. These run from literary saplings (earnest neophytes who read too much Stephen King) to the bluff and blustery (Hemingway, Mailer).

Yet while many writers are unswerving blowhards (with beards to match), lots of them are painfully introverted and suffer a “shyness that is criminally vulgar,” to quote a famous ’80s British pop band. 

That’d be me. As Marcel says, “I’m bad at talking about my work. Like many writers, I’m shy. I care too much what people think.”

I for one wince when people say they’ve read my stuff, even if they’re complimentary, or when an editor scours my copy line by line, syllable by syllable. I’m a raw nerve. I feel naked and nauseated. Writing in many ways is a performance, and I have stage fright.

For a long stretch my speciality was arts and celebrity journalism, with a focus on film, not fiction, though I always dreamed of writing the latter. Marcel says that she’s “ashamed (she) was too shy to major in journalism in college. That (she) feared the prospect of conducting interviews so much (she) majored in literature instead.” 

I was the opposite. I majored in journalism. I was too nervous to take creative writing classes — all that reading your work aloud, all that classmate critiquing. I finally took a fiction course in my late-20s, a university night class. I lasted one meeting. 

What happened was exactly what I dreaded would happen, a variation on my worst nightmare. The class of about 20 students was instructed to write a short story in 15 minutes and then read it aloud. Horrified, I decided in that instant I would drop the course the next day, and I did, no refund.

Speaking before groups, even at the dinner table, has always been excruciating for me. I won’t even say grace. Large work meetings give me intestinal anguish. On numerous occasions I’ve been invited to speak to writing and journalism classes. I turned down all offers, with a blush, and utmost relief.

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A creative writing class — a Circle of Hell.

Yet I find interviewing people easy, almost extremely so, even invigorating, which is odd when I’m the first person to leave a house party because such events are just too people-y. 

Unaccountably, I enjoy asking others about their life and work. I possess a thirsty curiosity to learn about all manner of personalities, walks of life, mannerisms, pastimes, love lives, favorite foods, what have you, while a tape recorder takes it all down. I’m voracious for copy fodder. I just like to write about people, places, happenings, stuff.

For years I was a culture critic. I was known to be mean, mordantly honest. An asshole. Since college, when I was the campus newspaper opinion editor, I’ve evinced a boldness in print and shyness in person.

People wondered about the dichotomy, and I always said I hid behind the newspaper byline. I was largely invisible, save for my words and ideas. I could walk down the street without being accosted. (There were a few exceptions, none of them ugly. Once, comically, someone asked for my autograph.)

I often think I can call myself a writer, despite the pretentious ring to it. All I know is that when I say I’m a writer, I feel both a sense of pride and charlatanism. And always my stomach does a terrific backflip of crazy self-doubt.

“Before you can say you’re a writer and mean it,” Marcel says, “first you must believe you’re a writer.” I’m still working on it.

God or godless. Either way, you’re wrong

Though I’ve only made a wee dent in the book I got today — “Seven Types of Atheism” by philosopher John Gray — I am already bitten and beguiled. On page 33 of the 170-page manifesto, I find myself putting it down often to copy a tart line or provocative passage.

Gray, without airs but with erudition, places in his crosshairs the arm wrestle between religion and atheism, that eternal, irreconcilable chasm of belief, God and godlessness. He is acridly and relentlessly critical of both.

Dense but light on its feet, slim but chubby with fact, philosophy and opinion, the book reveals a bracing entertainer who hardly balks at taking intellectual swipes at celebrity atheists slash rational humanists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and other crusaders. 

Gray, says The Guardian, “is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance, and for whom history has been little more than the sound of hacking and gouging.”

That’s my kind of guy, though Gray takes things a little further than I do when it comes to faith, history and humanism. Still, his book, from 2018, is studded with eyebrow-cocking history lessons, slashing judgments and pleasing iconoclasm. A few nuggets from my early reading:

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“There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview.’ Atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god, which is not found in most religions. … Nowhere does Buddhism speak of a Supreme Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion.”

“Many versions of Jesus and his life can be supported on the basis of existing evidence. Among the least plausible are those that have been presented as fact by Christian churches.”

“Christian thinkers have interpreted the rise of their religion as a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. Among the many prophets teaching at the time, why should he alone have inspired a religion that spread to the last corner of the earth? Unless you think that human events unfold under some sort of divine guidance, the metamorphosis of Jesus’ teaching into a universal faith can only have been the result of a succession of accidents. … The Christian religion is a creation of chance.”

“A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning its prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species, they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.”