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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Having a ‘Good Time’? Me too.

Finished Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” — terrific, explosive — and I’m now onto Amie Barrodale’s arch short stories “You Are Having a Good Time.” After just a few of these fun-size fictions, I am firmly in the book’s thrall. The title alone thrills me a little.

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I am glad I’m reading “You Are Having a Good Time,” because I am indeed having a good time. But frankly the stories are a lucky place holder for a book I’m waiting to arrive, “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude,” by travel journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom.

The book is about her year traveling solo in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York — four of my favorite cities, especially the first two — and all that she loved, loathed and learned basking in that life-expanding mode of emancipated alone-hood. I’m an inveterate solo trekker enamored with the places she visits, so Rosenbloom and I might have a lot in common.

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Amie Barrodale

For now, Barrodale’s “You Are Having a Good Time” is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.

Barrodale conjures “stories that don’t behave as you expect stories to behave,” notes the book flap. “Beautiful or Grotesque?” asks the headline on a review of the 2016 collection.

Or there’s this review headline: “Stories Exploring the Misguided, the Unrequited and the Mortified.” That review concludes: “None of these stories explain themselves willingly.”

That is true. Take “The Imp,” in which a possible ghost upends the relationship of a man and his pregnant wife. A tarot reader is involved. Or the bleakly comic “Night Report,” which follows a troubled woman to a New Age mountain retreat where she breaks down and declares, “I wish that I were dead. I’m heartbroken, and if I had a gun I would use it. … I’d shoot Eve. Thank you. I’d shoot Eve in the chest.”

Then there is “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” which opens with a dry, quizzical flourish: “A woman who was lonely and depressed should begin by getting on some medication. She should clean her house and throw away clutter. After that, Dr. Sheppard told his patients to lose weight and wear dresses.”

Her eye for detail is keen: “The restaurant was empty except for a guy at the bar. He was a little chubby. I could tell he was single because he was wearing white tube socks with black dress shoes. His jeans were too tight on him. I don’t mean that he had on skinny jeans. I mean that he had on jeans that were two sizes too small, and he was uncomfortable. He kept squirming, fooling with his phone. …  Outside, through the window, I saw an old guy stop under a tree, pull down a branch, and smell a flower.”

On love: “Being torn apart is what a relationship is. So don’t be afraid. Play the game.”

The stories groove to mercurial rhythms, and sometimes seem to bear a torch, in search of a point. They withhold facile answers and spurn tidy bows. They’re fun like that, and funny. They are dark, but giddy.

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Barrodale’s stories — this is her only book — are a cousin to the blithely jagged fiction of Ottessa Moshfegh, who’s an avowed fan. “It’s one of my favorite books,” she recently said. “Like (Michael) Ondaatje, Barrodale makes me hold my head and ask, ‘How?’”

Moshfegh shouldn’t be too envious. She’s the better writer, more probing, bolder, weirder. But Barrodale is a force, an alchemist of the odd, fabricating devilish modern tales that totter your balance and leave your mouth dry.