Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Taking its title from a line in Lou Reed's notorious song ``Heroin,'' this story collection by with-it novelist Johnson focuses on the familiar themes of addiction and recovery. In his novels, Johnson has shown his ability to transform the commonplace into the extraordinary, but this volume of 11 stories is no better than, and often seems inferior to, the self-destruction/spiritual rehab books currently crowding bookstore shelves. All of the tales, set in the Midwest and West, are told by a single narrator, and while this should provide unity and depth, instead it makes the stories fragmentary and monotonous. Some disturbing moments do recall Johnson at his inventive best, as when a peeping Tom catches sight of a Mennonite man washing his wife's feet after a marital spat in ``Beverly Home,'' or when the narrator 'fesses up to his fright in a confrontation with the boyfriend--``a mean, skinny, intelligent man who I happened to feel inferior to''--of a woman he's fondling in ``Two Men.'' But for the most part the stories are neurasthenic, as though Johnson hopes the shock value of characters fatally overdosing in the presence of lovers and friends will substitute for creativity and hard work from him. Even the dialogue for the most part lacks Johnson's usual energy.
Will Patton, award-winning reader of Johnson’s oeuvre, brings to life his dark, drug-addled, tragicomic world. Each short story offers another vista on a lost, sorrowful American underworld where recurring characters stumble through dive bars, dead-end relationships, emergency rooms, car crashes, and petty crimes. Patton’s narration is pitch perfect; he produces voices for a collection of gritty, bent souls who spend their lost days riding buses, hitchhiking, breaking into abandoned houses, drinking at the Vine, and stealing pills from the hospital dispensary. An absolute must for Johnson fans and a fine introduction to the author’s work. A Picador paperback. (Oct.)
Set in the Midwest and West, these aggressively grim stories are linked by a common narrator--a young, nameless substance abuser of unspecified background and education. Like the other marginal and directionless individuals who populate these tales, he is locked into a downward spiral of booze, drugs, and petty crime, the squalor of his life emblematic of a more profound spiritual malaise. The best pieces--like ``Beverly Home,'' which concerns a recovering addict who spies on a Mennonite couple through their bedroom window, and ``Car Crash While Hitchhiking,'' which is exactly what the title implies--balance longing with despair, revealing the yearning for a kind of meaning ultimately lost to these lives. Johnson writes with hallucinatory brilliance, giving these stories a nightmarish edge. Bleak and disturbing, they are not for the faint-hearted.-- Lawrence Rungren, Bedford Free P.L., Mass.
From the Publisher
“Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.” The Nation
“A work of spare beauty and almost religious intensity.” Entertainment Weekly
“Intense, vicious, and beautiful, these stories are fraught with a cutting wit purposefully juxtaposed against the too-big sentimentality of a drunk. Denis Johnson is an exquisite writer.” Mary Gaitskill
“[Dennis Johnson is] a synthesizer of profoundly American voices: we can hear Twain in his biting irony, Whitman in his erotic excess, not a little of Dashiell Hammett too in the hard sentences he throws back at his gouged, wounded world. And behind all these you sense something else: a visionary angel, a Kerouac, or, better yet, a Blake, who has seen his demon and yearned for God and forged a language to contain them both.” Newsday
“Ferocious intensity. . . . No American novelist since William Burroughs has so flagrantly risked 'insensitivity' in an effort to depict the pathology of addiction.” The New York Times Book Review
Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.
A work of spare beauty and almost religious intensity.
Intense, vicious, and beautiful, these stories are fraught with a cutting wit purposefully juxtaposed against the too-big sentimentality of a drunk. Denis Johnson is an exquisite writer.
[Dennis Johnson is] a synthesizer of profoundly American voices: we can hear Twain in his biting irony, Whitman in his erotic excess, not a little of Dashiell Hammett too in the hard sentences he throws back at his gouged, wounded world. And behind all these you sense something else: a visionary angel, a Kerouac, or, better yet, a Blake, who has seen his demon and yearned for God and forged a language to contain them both.
The New York Times Book Review
Ferocious intensity. . . . No American novelist since William Burroughs has so flagrantly risked 'insensitivity' in an effort to depict the pathology of addiction.
Read an Excerpt
A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping ... A Cherokee filled with bourbon ... A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student ...
And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri ...
... I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I've already namedthe salesman and the Indian and the studentall of whom had given me drugs. At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody's car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we'd have an accident in the storm.
I didn't care. They said they'd take me all the way.
The man and the wife put the little girl up front with them and left the baby in back with me and my dripping bedroll. "I'm not taking you anywhere very fast," the man said. "I've got my wife and babies here, that's why."
You are the ones, I thought. And I piled my sleeping bag against the left-hand door and slept across it, not caring whether I lived or died. The baby slept free on the seat besideme. He was about nine months old.
... But before any of this, that afternoon, the salesman and I had swept down into Kansas City in his luxury car. We'd developed a dangerous cynical camaraderie beginning in Texas, where he'd taken me on. We ate up his bottle of amphetamines, and every 80 often we pulled off the Interstate and bought another pint of Canadian Club and a sack of ice. His car had cylindrical glass holders attached to either door and a white, leathery interior. He said he'd take me home to stay overnight with his family, but first he wanted to stop and see a woman he knew.
Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City's rush hour with a sensation of running aground. As soon as we slowed down, all the magic of travelling together burned away. He went on and on about his girlfriend. "I like this girl, I think I love this girlbut I've got two kids and a wife, and there's certain obligations there. And on top of everything else, I love my wife. I'm gifted with love. I love my kids. I love all my relatives." As he kept on, I felt jilted and sad: "I have a boat, a little sixteen-footer. I have two cars. There's room in the back yard for a swimming pool." He found his girlfriend at work. She ran a furniture store, and I lost him there.
The clouds stayed the same until night. Then, in the dark, I didn't see the storm gathering. The driver of the Volkswagen, a college man, the one who stoked my head with all the hashish, let me out beyond the city limits just as it began to rain. Never mind the speed I'd been taking, I was too overcome to stand up. I lay out in the grass off the exit ramp and woke in the middle of a puddle that had filled up around me.
And later, as I've said, I slept in the back seat while the Oldsmobilethe family from Marshalltownsplashed along through the rain. And yet I dreamed I was looking right through my eyelids, and my pulse marked off the seconds of time. The Interstate through western Missouri was, in that era, nothing more than a two-way road, most of it. When a semi truck came toward us and passed going the other way, we were lost in a blinding spray and a warfare of noises such as you get being towed through an automatic car wash. The wipers stood up and lay down across the windshield without much effect. I was exhausted, and after an hour I slept more deeply.
I'd known all along exactly what was going to happen. But the man and his wife woke me up later, denying it viciously.
I was thrown against the back of their seat so hard that it broke. I commenced bouncing back and forth. A liquid which I knew right away was human blood flew around the car and rained down on my head. When it was over I was in the back seat again, just as I had been. I rose up and looked around. Our headlights had gone out. The radiator was hissing steadily. Beyond that, I didn't hear a thing. As far as I could tell, I was the only one conscious. As my eyes adjusted I saw that the baby was lying on its back beside me as if nothing had happened. Its eyes were open and it was feeling its cheeks with its little hands.
In a minute the driver, who'd been slumped over the wheel, sat up and peered at us. His face was smashed and dark with blood. It made my teeth hurt to look at himbut when he spoke, it didn't sound as if any of his teeth were broken.
"We had a wreck," he said...