Denis Johnson r.i.p.

I hadn’t intended posting today, but couldn’t let the passing of Denis Johnson last week go unacknowledged here.

Born in 1949, he was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. The influence of this seminal ‘dirty realist’ shows, although Johnson, also a poet, doesn’t just write that tough, stripped-to-bone minimalist prose – although he’s very good at it – he’s also capable of glorious poetic flights of language.

Denis Johnson I’ve read four of his books. By far my favourite is the earliest of them: his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). With its title taken from one of Lou Reed’s grittier drug songs, it’s about a bunch of drifters, vagabonds, addicts and dreamers who hang around mostly in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Try ‘Emergency’, which is brimming with Johnson’s exuberant weirdness. Here’s how it opens:

I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.

They clumsily tend to a man with a knife in his eye. Drive out in the desert and pick up an enigmatic hitch-hiker. There’s a hallucinatory drive-in cinema. A pregnant roadkill rabbit. Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue with the hitch-hiker.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Georgie asked.

‘This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?’ I asked Hardee.

‘He’s still down there.’

‘Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.’

‘I was working on a bee farm,’ Hardee said.

‘Wow. Do those things sting you?’

‘Not like you’d think,’ Hardee said. ‘You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.’

Denis Johnson His novella Train Dreams (2012) is less grimy, but still rugged. It’s set in the American west in the early twentieth century. A good place to start with the longer fiction – but still only 116 pp.

I wrote in passing HERE a while ago about his epic Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which I found a little patchy, but still very powerful. I seem to have mislaid my copy, so there’s no picture here.

That leaves The Name of the World (2000) and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters (2015), a sort of existential thriller in the Graham Greene manner, set in various countries in Africa.

His was one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction; a great loss to literature.

Zoris, woodpeckers and Carignan

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

In Denis Johnson’s epic novel Tree of Smoke (2007), a densely plotted existential Conradian thriller set in Vietnam and elsewhere in S.E. Asia from 1963 to the present day, a character with the wonderful name of Carignan goes to wash in a river in Mindanao in the Philippines:

‘wearing his zoris and underclothes’

I didn’t know what a zori was, so looked it up; this is what the OED entry says:

Japanese, < grass, (rice) straw + ri footwear, sole

With pl. concord. Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.

The first citation dates from 1823 (from a book about Japan); the most recent is from 1984 (a text from the British Judo Association’s Coaching Award Scheme: ‘Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events…’

Zori image

From J-Life website where we’re told that the pair illustrated are made from ‘real igusa grass’ and called Tatami/Zori…which led me to check out

Tatami.   OED:  1. A rush-covered straw mat which is the usual floor-covering in Japan and the size of which (approx. six feet by three feet) functions as a standard unit in room measurement.  (Citations begin 1614; the most recent is: ‘1981   G. MacBeth Kind of Treason ix. 92   He relaxed on the tatami and spoke with polite approval of the cousin’s tsuba.’

Tatami was originally a luxury mat used mostly by Japanese nobility.  As their aristocratic houses were mainly wooden, Tatami was highly prized as floor cover and for seating.  As the architectural style of homes developed, Tatami became more widely popular with the general public.  It’s valued for its texture, unique elasticity, and has excellent moisture absorbing and discharging functions, achieved by weaving in the natural rush grass, igusa.

‘A recent study has found that the scent of Igusa as an effect aromatherapy. We would like not only Japanese but people throughout the world to try our Tatami that has such excellent features. Igusa-mono was developed as a new stylish Tatami blended into overseas living spaces…’ (From the website igusa-mono.com)

If you’ve read anything else on this blog you’ll know I’m fascinated by words, so naturally I looked at unfamiliar words nearby in my Chambers dictionary; this is what I came across:

ZYGODACTYL/OUS: ‘with toes arranged in pairs, two facing forwards and two backwards…eg woodpeckers’ (adj.  and n.)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

A pair of GSWs often visits my birdfeeder in the garden: they’re very fond of peanuts.  Handsome birds, but very shy – they hide behind tree trunks if they think they’re being watched.