Fleeting marathons

One thing I started doing this year was to focus on a single author’s books for an extended period of time. This began with Richard Ford in June and July; his four Frank Bascombe novels were what I was reading when Louisa was born. It was a top-tier reading experience for me, and Ford’s wry voice on the page will forever be attached to the early, bleary-eyed days of life with Lou. Not for nothing, I think at least two of those books rank among the “Great American Novel” echelon.

Now, it’s onto Denis Johnson to close the year. Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams, Already Dead and, currently, Tree of Smoke. What I like so far about his stuff is that he doesn’t sit in the sentimental or the transcendent for too long. Instead, he merely grazes the veil before pulling back into the dark, malfunctioning American reality we all know so well. You learn pretty quickly as a writer that all the meaningful schlock about life has already been said before, that the deftest move is to reinvent those familiar melodies in a voice that might connect with someone else’s mind. This is, after all, largely what love is: the syncopation of rhythms. Two melodies linking arms in verse. And this is what makes reading such a joy.

So, I’ve loved the madness in Johnson’s work. Reading his voice is good for the winter, I think, like throwing logs on a fire. And I dig his attitude, his posthumous mystique.

“Writing. It’s easy work,” he wrote. “You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”

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