Student Picks: Johnson


Ashley Bales-- Denis Johnson spent his career writing “people who totaled their souls,” “Not bad people, not evil people, but actually storms of innocence. Deadheads telling their tears.” He explored “the violence inside a man.” He discussed death, ruminated on the psyche’s physical confinement within the body, within the strictures of society.  He was fascinated with the paired concepts of freedom and constraint and his characters tested the limits of these boundaries. He dismissed moral systems that would dehumanize his characters because of this struggle. In Already Dead, Johnson strings these ideas together in a meandering plot that serves as a scaffold for his most comprehensive exploration of the human experience as a struggle between the soul, society, and the physical world.

The characters in Already Dead inhabit a world of violence. Nelson Fairchild spends the book running from killers. His brother William is a recluse, attacked by rays coming through the air itself. Carl Van Ness is a weaponized body, his soul no longer present. When Nelson Fairchild is finally caught by the assassins pursuing him, his consciousness expands, his last moments become infinite, he lies on a beach dying and “[begins] to understand that he’d accomplished these innumerable journeys, so many and so involved he could hardly remember them, in a radius of three or four feet.”


This exploration of what it means for a life to end continued throughout Johnson’s career. Nelson’s death is echoed in another of Johnson’s death scene, that of Link from his story “Triumph Over the Grave” in his posthumously published collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. The elderly and dying Link wakes to find himself in the wrong room. He steps outside, towards a gulley leading into “…the roaring extinction into which ocean, earth, and sky had disappeared.” Instead of heading towards this “roaring extinction,” Link “banked left, circled around the corner of the house to balance in front of his bedroom’s back door—situated about sixteen feet diagonally across this bedroom from the sliding doors he’d walked out of. The journey had covered thirty or forty paces and lasted under ninety seconds.”

In these passages, Johnson portrays the psychic life of an individual as infinitely large and uncontainable, yet lets it rest, like nesting dolls, within the increasingly limited confines of a life, a home, a body. As Fairchild and Link are on the verge of death, they experience unclear boundaries between the perception of their vast psychic world and their limited physical world. Over and over again, Johnson develops narrative tension in exploring a character’s psychic freedoms within a confining reality. But Johnson’s fascination with this contrast is not limited to explorations of confinement; he is equally interested in the limits of psychic freedom, explicitly explored in the drug addled narratives of Jesus’ Son and the soul hopping discussions of Already Dead.

Already Dead is a novel that is likely to polarize readers. There are long metaphysical and Nietzschean rants. Neslon Fairchild has more lives than your average cat and few characters are living by the end of the novel. The violence is extravagant and upsetting. The depiction of humanity is bleak. But for those who have ever felt alien within their bodies, felt their soul beating away at their insides, certainly anyone who wants to delve into Johnson’s deepest ruminations, it is essential reading.

Johnson’s exploration of these themes throughout his body of work does not leave you with a unified theory. He did not write from a rigid platform but as one searching—a searching that imbued his work with vibrancy—pulling meaning where he could find it. For those less inclined to Already Dead’s aggressions, “Triumph Over the Grave” offers a softer exploration, turning its attention not towards an individual’s struggle to live, but towards death’s dissolution of relationships and the pain of lost companionship. 

Student Picks: Johnson, July


Eddie Dzialo-- To read Denis Johnson is to embed yourself in someone else’s struggle. In Johnson’s final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, I couldn’t help but feeling that I was getting implanted into the author’s own acceptance of mortality and death. The stories in this collection focus on addicts, divorced men, convicts, men on their deathbeds; Johnson himself had been married three times, had been sober since the early eighties, and was in the later stages of his life.

In the title story, the protagonist says, “...I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to.” Sadly, this was also true for Johnson. Because some of the people in this book are writers or poets, it’s easy to imagine Johnson as being a character in these stories, reflecting on his past. And he does so with humor, honesty, and a command of language that makes this collection something surreal, something eternal. 


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- When I think of Miranda July, I think of the kinds of films that I put on my watch list, and after months, decide I should watch it, start it, decide I’m not in the mood yet, and turn it off. Yet, still, there’s something magnetic about her.

So when I found out she was also a novelist, I was intrigued. The First Bad Man describes a neurotic, 43-year-old woman named Cheryl living on her own, pining after an older, self-obsessed man, and looking for a kindred spirit in the faces of strangers’ infants. Her life is thrown into chaos when her bosses’ twenty-something-year-old daughter moves in and displays total disregard, even hostility, for Cheryl and her strange little life, which unravels quickly.

July commits completely to her narrator’s voice, which follows some truly bizarre streams of consciousness that I found myself reading multiple times because I couldn’t believe the crazy things I just read. Cheryl follows her own internal logic, which only makes sense to her, and probably not many others. That July can pull readers along with this is a testament to her enviable skill as a writer. This is the Miranda July I signed up for.

Faculty Picks: Johnson, Stegner, Welty


Benjamin Nugent--In “Strangler Bob,” the short story by Denis Johnson published in this week’s New Yorker, you find Johnson trotting out his courtly mode. It’s kind of Blanche DuBois cum Bertie Wooster, but he metes it out in such small doses that it never feels like camp. He uses it in “Dirty Wedding,” when the narrator laments, “These days had reduced us to the Rebel Motel.”  Also in “Two Men,” when the narrator bemoans the break-up of his gang: “Later on one of them got hurt when we were burglarizing a pharmacy, and the other two of us dropped him bleeding at the back entrance of the hospital and he was arrested and all the bonds were dissolved.”

In “Strangler Bob,” which takes place in jail, the narrator, Dink, says of a fellow inmate: “This time he’d been arrested for giving a man some well-deserved punishment in the dining area of the Howard Johnson’s, which he described as the wrong kind of restaurant for that.” Dink deems a prisoner who shares a low-grade hallucinogen “most generous.”

Joining Dink in Johnson County’s facility is Dundun, who also features in Johnson’s older story “Dundun.” Dink describes him thus: “Dundun’s mental space, customarily empty, had been invaded by an animal spirit.” Imagine if Johnson had gotten self-conscious and replaced the elegant “customarily” with plain old “usually.” The paragraph would have been mauled.

It’s a classic Mark Twain move, to write of coarse individuals as if they rated great tact. But see also Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, where the narrator says, “The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder.”


Richard Adams Carey--"In this not-quite-quiet darkness, while the diesel breaks its heart more and more faintly on the mountain grade, I lie wondering if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather."

Those are the wrenching last words of Wallace Stegner’s 1972 novel Angle of Repose. The narrator is Lyman Ward, an aging historian, divorcee, and wheelchair-bound amputee. His grandfather was Oliver Ward, a brilliant engineer who took his cultivated, Eastern-educated wife Susan from mining town to hardscrabble mining town throughout the West at the end of the 19th century.

Lyman is devoting his retirement to writing the biography of his grandmother, an artist and illustrator, and of her loving, strenuous marriage—a union blighted by tragedy and recrimination in its final decades. Lyman has recriminations himself against his former wife, now abandoned by her lover and extending overtures to him. The novel is chiefly the epic story of Susan Ward, her family, and the frontier, but the present-day (1960s) struggles of her crippled, solitary, angry, but eminently humane grandson play in gorgeous counterpoint to the main plot.

Lyman Ward lives alone in his grandparents’ last home in northern California, and his description of being bathed by the neighbor lady hired to help take care of him is harrowing in its depiction of the indignities of age and disability. But the novel as a whole glows with all the courage, endurance, mercy, and love we can hope to shore against our frailties.


Justin Talyor--I’m living down in Hattiesburg this school year as Writer-in-residence at University of Southern Mississippi, and have taken the appointment as an opportunity to get re-acquainted with Southern literature. I've been revisiting Barry Hannah and William Faulkner, exploring the early novels of Harry Crews and Thomas McGuane, teaching Lydia Peelle's excellent collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing in my contemporary lit seminar. But the greatest revelation has been Eudora Welty, who lived and wrote just up the road in Jackson. I did not know her work at all before I got here and have been making my way through her Collected Stories, vacillating between profound shame at how long I managed to stay ignorant of her and profound gratitude for the fact that I get to discover her now, while living in her home state. 

I started at the beginning of the Collected, with A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, published in 1941. The Wide Net and Other Stories followed close on its heels in 1943. I’m midway through The Golden Apples now, which appeared in 1949 and so finished out an astonishingly productive decade. I love these stories. Welty's use of voice, her sense of history and place, her delight in the grotesque, are easily in league with Faulkner. Moreover, I find her largely free of the pathological Southern sentimentalism that nags at even his greatest work (and smothers some of it). You can draw lines from Welty not only to the aforementioned Hannah and to Flannery O'Connor, but to Joy Williams and--in a story like "Moon Lake", for instance--even Christine Schutt. But the writer of whom Welty reminds me most strongly, especially in those early books, is Nathaniel Hawthorne. Stories like “A Visit of Charity,” “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” “Old Mr. Marblehall,” and “The Wide Net” put me in mind of Hawthorne’s earthy, sinister, proto-Kafkan tales such as “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and especially “Wakefield.” And one great thing about reading a Collected Stories is being able to trace the arc of its author’s development. As much as I admire and enjoy those flinty, mysterious first two books, to read The Golden Apples is to watch a natural born talent achieve true mastery of her form.  The seven connected stories it contains feel less imagined than lived, or better still, dreamed into being, as in this paragraph from “Moon Lake”:

“Luminous of course but hidden from them, Moon Lake streamed out in the night. By moonlight sometimes it seemed to run like a river. Beyond the cry of the frogs there were sounds of a boat moored somewhere, of its vague, clumsy reaching at the shore, those sounds that are recognized as being made by something sightless. When did boats have eyes--once? Nothing watched that their little part of the lake stayed roped off and protected; was it there now, the rope stretched frail-like between posts that swayed in mud? That rope was to mark how far the girls could swim. Beyond lay the deep part, some bottomless parts, said Moody. Here and there was the quicksand that stirred your footprint and kissed your heel. All snakes, harmless and harmful, were freely playing now; they put a trailing, moony division between weed and weed--bright, turning, bright and turning.”   

Fangirling & Fanboying: Sweetbitter, Binary Star, Guster is for Lovers

Guster at the house of blues, courtesy of  front row boston .

Guster at the house of blues, courtesy of front row boston.



Lisa Janicki -- Not surprisingly, there’s a theme of consumption in Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, which takes place largely in an upscale NYC restaurant near Union Square. There’s the eating, obviously, and the drinking and the snorting coke, maybe just as obviously. But there’s also being swallowed up by a new place, its inhabitants, and its rhythms. Some days, the city where you live is on your side: you go from A to B in one continuous movement: you breeze through turnstiles and catch every train; it’s all green lights and walk signals. There’s a welcome loss of self in times like these. Through Tess, Sweetbitter’s narrator, we experience this through the eyes of a server: “Specks of dust taking off from bottles, shadows darting onto the floor, glasses listing over the edges of counters and caught just in time…The reflex was to see beyond my line of vision, to see around and behind myself. The breath between consciousness and action collapsed. No hesitations, no projections, no order. I became a verb.” That passage is immediately followed by the best description I’ve ever read of what it means to be in the weeds during your restaurant shift. And how once you’re there, suddenly wrecked and paralyzed by your own surroundings, you can’t get back to the other side, you can hardly remember it. Danler presents to us these varieties of consciousness, and how slipping back and forth between the two can happen in an instant and is seldom in our control.

Lost Ground.

Lost Ground.

Eric Beebe -- About every Memorial Day I dig through my stacks of old CDs (yes, some of us still have such things) for Lost Ground, an EP by the band Defeater. The band made a name for itself with, aside from its myriad of talent, a distinct narrative style to its lyrics. Frontman Derek Archambault has so far written the lyrics to each new installment of the band’s music as different characters’ perspectives in a story linking all of them together. In Lost Ground, we are reintroduced to a homeless WWII veteran who plays the role of singing sage to the protagonist of the band’s album Travels. But the EP starts from this man’s adolescence, with a song titled “The Red, White, and Blues” kicking off his story as he drinks himself into oblivion before shipping off to war. Through six tracks, the EP takes us along the timeline of this man’s life. In the end track, “Beggin’ in the Slums,” our hero—returned home as a veteran and forsaken by his countrymen—spends his days playing guitar to passing crowds for change, and he sees the young man from Travels, on the run, and recognizes a look in his eyes he once knew as his own. With admittance of the time he’s lost, that he’s amounted to all he will, he finds hope that this young man will do better, somehow for the both of them. Because they both know the same thing: people deserve better.

Binary Star.

Binary Star.

Nadia Owusu -- I should have found Sarah Gerard’s short but intense novel Binary Star to be disorienting. It is structured less like a novel than like a long prose poem. It’s about astrology and anorexia, capitalism and addiction, love and self-hate. It’s about all of these things at once, sometimes all at once in one sentence. Time is undefined. The past and the present collide without notice. Dialogue is unmarked and undifferentiated from thought. And yet, I was transfixed. The novel did not, despite its unconventional structure, feel confused. It was beautiful and raw and thoroughly original. Rather than being experimental for experimentation’s sake, one gets the sense that Gerard followed the architectural principal that form should follow function. Binary Star is about a woman and a world in chaos. The fact that the novel attempts to wrench the reader out of his or her literary comfort zone only serves to heighten the emotional power of the story.

The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters.


John Vercher -- There’s nothing funny about Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters. It is described as “a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post 9-11 world”, but the end result is, almost impossibly, something far more complex. Johnson’s slim novel is told from the first-person perspective of Roland Nair, a government operative (for which government, we’re never quite sure) on assignment in Africa to track down his former colleague, Michael Adriko, an African native with whom Nair has had some dirty dealings. During their reunion, Michael introduces Nair to his fiancée, Davidia, whose lineage involves Michael’s military past. What follows is a tumultuous journey that leads Adriko and Nair on a path to capitalize on the fears of post-9-11 terrorism with an ill-conceived plot designed to separate bad people from their money. While Johnson adroitly manages the tension of the plot, it’s the machinations of Nair’s mind that cause the greatest discomfort. He is a misogynist, a racist, and while he proclaims a love for Michael, he’s simultaneously looking for a way to steal his fiancée from under his nose. It is in this aspect where Nair’s characterization is most captivating, as his desires for Davidia spiral into obsessiveness in a manner that makes you question his sanity, and perhaps the reality of his perceptions. He is the most unreliable of narrators from which you can’t turn away. And while I found it somewhat difficult, at times, to separate the prejudicial ideations of Nair from the possible perspective of the author (Johnson did in fact spend time as a journalist in Africa prior to writing Monsters), the sentence structure is in fine form and the dialogue is masterful.

Guster is for lovers.

Guster is for lovers.

Daniel Johnson -- It's no well-kept secret that I am a tragic Guster superfan. In truth, I'm a little unsure whether recommending this band is a moment I was made for, or (much more likely) one I should have actively avoided, as there's just no chance I'll be able to articulate what makes theirs such timeless, quintessential, unbiasedly exceptional music. Regardless, here we are--you, me, and Front Row Boston's recording of Guster's January 15, 2016 homecoming concert at Boston's House of Blues, released in May of this year. The video is just over an hour long, comprised of 14 songs from their Night One set (I was at Night Two), spliced with commentary from vocalists/guitarists/bassists/everything-elseists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on their band's twenty-five year career. They formed in 1991, right down the road from the House of Blues, at Tufts University, where three of its remaining original members attended undergrad. So what's it like when they come back to Boston, when they come home? "It's always sort of emotional when we come back and play the place where we started--I mean, it's crazy," says Ryan. Adds Adam: "You can feel it, when we play, you can feel it in the crowd, you can see when you're looking out there ... Boston is the place that built our career." Such is the electricity with which they play during this show: beneath their characteristic lightheartedness, there's a palpable wattage of gratitude, sincerity, nostalgic revelry. It's no clearer on display than during their opus from Keep It Together, "Come Downstairs and Say Hello." These guys are object lessons in the rare sort of artistic brotherhood that endures and evolves (for a quarter of a century!), and as a fan, seeing that sort of synergy between them, strong as ever so late in the game, is intoxicating: to witness this concert for the first time or the hundredth is to understand a little better what lasting relationships at their strangest, funkiest, and most harmonious should look like. This is why--as we were reminded during the TNT broadcast of this year's NCAA Championship Game--Guster is for L<3vers.

100 Love Sonnets.

100 Love Sonnets.

E.B. --  While City Lights’s translated collection of Pablo Neruda’s poems, The Essential Neruda, offers a grand overview of his work—his odes, his communist beliefs, his musings on Machu Picchu—it was his love poems that hooked me. Most notable to me was his poem “XII,” from his Cien sonetos de amor (100 Sonnets of Love). It’s impossible not to be enthralled by Neruda’s use of language, albeit translated, that touches upon senses that make reading his love poems feel nothing short of an aphrodisiac. Now, having tracked down and read Cien sonetos from cover to cover, I only find myself more impressed with it. Each poem is titled simply with the Roman numerals marking its place in a progression of Neruda’s musings. The emotions wax and wane, rise and fall, like the moon and waves he drew upon for symbolism. His use of natural imagery and picturesque landscapes blend with romantic sentimentality; whereas lesser writers would butcher such a mixture, this is Neruda’s chief triumph. He draws upon one image or another knowing full-well the associations they brought with them and carefully balanced these associations to create sex on paper. In a time when postmodern thought has cast more doubt than ever on what love is or even whether it exists, Neruda’s work calls out to demand its reality and prove that it’s something floating at will between our senses and psyche. It says we don’t need to know what love is or how it is, just to know it’s there and—most of all—feel it.