Thursday, 8 June 2017


My obituary of the writer Denis Johnson went up at the Guardian online Tuesday; you can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper sometime soon. The obit is pretty much as I wrote it, so there isn't much to add. I still recall reading Angels when it first came out and feeling ambivalent, as I did about Raymond Carver and much of what was being called 'Dirty Realism' at the time. It was odd too how much Johnson came to resemble Carver as he aged. It struck me that the writing, while often beautiful, was sometimes gilding what should have been a more gritty lily, and it struck me too that this sort of 'realism' was dirty only from a certain perspective, one that was very insular, literary, and creative writerly.

This of course was Johnson's background for much of his career, after the decade lost to drugs. It seemed that the dissolution and despair he wrote out was sometimes moving and shocking in its description, but often, as I hint in the obit, self-pitying. It was a Holden Caufield kind of world view, turned adult in a harsher world than the one Salinger could have imagined. I didn't get far into Tree Of Smoke; one of Johnson's strong points was being able to be concise in his best, most crystalline images. And other was, as I pointed out, his appropriation of the tropes of genre fiction which provided a sense of structure in books that cried out to be road novels. Those qualities seemed less present in Tree Of Smoke, but paradoxically, it was his most honoured book.

The style I am describing was particularly good for the screen. Hit Me is worth seeking out: Johnson's ability to create telling scenes, the strongest point of his writing, shines here, and the screenplay's structure provides that kind of framework I thought helped him out. I may seek it out too, to watch again.

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