No, I just start writing. I don’t have any plan. I wait to find out where it goes. Sometimes I do an outline, but even then, that’s not really a plan, because I don’t really follow it. The novel is bigger than your head. A novel is a gigantic, rambling, incredible thing. All you can do is start. Roy Lichtenstein, who I knew quite well actually, would say the reason most painters fail at art—not at painting, but at art—is because they know what the picture is going to be before they approach the canvas. So the whole idea that there are things you should say or want to say or have to say—fuck that.
Charcoal Joe is your fourteenth Easy Rawlins book. You once said that the eleventh novel in the series, Blonde Faith, was going to be your last, yet you continued writing. Why do you keep returning to Easy? What is it about him?
When I finished Blonde Faith, I couldn’t see another book coming out of Easy. I couldn’t even imagine it. I realized, finally, that I’d reached the border of my father’s life and was entering into the world of my life. I decided if I wrote from that vantage point, from that point of view, I could write the novels exactly the same but with my experience forming it, rather than the experiences of my father and his generation.
Do you have an end in mind?
I don’t know if I have an end plan. It depends who lives longer, Easy or me.
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is one of those books people collect in multiples, saving extra copies to give to friends. I used to joke about handing it out in place of Halloween candy. Fortunately, Johnson wrote so much more: two collections of plays, three books of poetry, two short story collections, nine novels, a novella, and a book of reportage. He was dedicated to his vision of the writing life and embraced the mystery of the creative process with his students. After his death on May 24, there was an outpouring of appreciation for Johnson’s life and work from readers and writers, students and friends. We’ve asked for further thoughts from some of the people he reached through his books, his friendship, and the classes he led at various universities. We hope this collection adds further warmth and insight into the extraordinary work Denis Johnson gave to the world. —Aaron Gilbreath
Denis Johnson’s editor, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In the end, for me at least, Denis was unknowable. We worked together in two different phases on a lot of books, but somehow I always felt he was over there and I was over here. It didn’t seem personal, more existential. He had a genial surface, a sunniness and generosity and humor that were joyful to experience. Who wouldn’t have loved basking in that warmth? But other waters were always running in Denis, and I don’t think many people, except his wife Cindy, got a look into them
Our work together was usually easy. Denis wasn’t interested in editorial intervention, nor did he need it. But I learned that he could take what might have been an offhand remark much too deeply to heart. I believe Denis was greatly vulnerable always, and I suspect this was part of why he kept his distance from the saturnalia of literary life.
Denis told his students at Iowa that they should want to be Shakespeare, the only thing for a writer to want. That he certainly wanted it for himself and his work — not only in fiction and poetry, but in journalism and drama — shows the relentless drive of his ambition. Ambition is the noblest quality a writer can have. Fighting all the impediments to it, internal and outward, is the writer’s daily task. Jesus’ Son is about the force of addiction and the only thing that can overmaster it: the ecstatic experience of God. Train Dreams is about solitude. I think it’s arguable that these books, which are among his great achievements, speak to two poles of his experience. Readers will keep coming to them always, which tells you that here, as elsewhere, he hit the nail on the head.
Novelist, essayist, cultural critic
Denis was gentle, funny, good-hearted; a sweet, impish, and concerned man. You wanted to be around him. Maybe because in his early years he lost time to drugs, he felt life was precious. You felt that reading him, felt it being near him.
I was fortunate to meet Denis in 2011 in Kyoto. We were doing a week-long gig together. Riyo Niimoto, a writer and journalist, was teaching at the Kyoto University for Art and Design where he had recently started the first MFA writing program in Japan. He wanted Denis and me to discuss our writing with Japanese novelists and our experiences teaching in MFA programs. Denis hadn’t visited Japan since he was eight or nine, when his family lived there for a few years. He was full of joy retrieving Japanese words, pieces of his childhood. He was writing about it in his mind, you could see that. Denis embraced every experience, he was always observing life, and his beautiful sentences rose and fell with its rhythms.
Writing was everything to Denis. Writing and his wife, Cindy, his children, his close friends, they were his life. He had no time for bullshit. Award-winning, acclaimed, sure, but Denis was resolutely straight ahead. Writing was a calling, not a career.
I didn’t know Denis’s cancer had come back. We were talking by email about friends’ dying. His last sentences to me, sent on April 10: “Another day this side of the grass — I’ll take it. And it’s the only day there ever was — today. Every breath is sweet. Love, DJ.” It kills me — this glorious, graceful man gone from our world. A magnificent American writer. One of our best, ever. Denis Johnson had it all, and he took it to the limit.
Painter, professor at the Yale School of Art
FEAR NOT are the words inscribed across the pinnacle of James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. In 1982, DJ and I drove from Florida to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC to see the throne. DJ had become obsessed with Hampton’s work after hearing me describe it as one man’s visionary sculpture of his dialogue with God, and he insisted we stop in Eloree, South Carolina, the artist’s birthplace. At the Stop-n-Go on the corner of Hampton Street, DJ asked everyone in the store if they had ever heard of the artist, but no one had. When we arrived at the Smithsonian and DJ finally saw the throne, he said, “I couldn’t take it all in, and I was a little frightened.” Hampton’s lifelong work about redemption, a whale-sized gold and silver tinfoil sculpture created all alone in his garage, brought DJ to his knees. That night in the motel DJ began writing a poem in the bathtub. Later, he bolted up in bed. “I have to go home right now,” he said. “It was too much for me.” So I drove him to the airport. As he got out of the car he snapped his fingers and said, “Fear not.” Five years later he finished the poem.
Poet, author of Magdalene and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time
When Denis Johnson came out with The Incognito Lounge in 1982, the world of poetry trembled. In that extraordinary collection is the poem titled “Now,” which is as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever read, and the central poem of my writing life.
The poem is an experience. It’s happening to the poet as he writes it ─ not a record of an experience, not a memory ─ the experience is occurring to him word by word ─ a stepping into space without a rope. A waking awareness, a contradiction of his own impulse (Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson), and a series of urgent questions lead him and us to the very brink of radical transformation.
Denis was the first sober writer I had ever met. He was almost bursting out of his skin with aliveness. I watched him in wonder. How could someone so alive walk into rooms without holding something in front of his face? The poem “Now” suggests how.
Author of the novels The Missing Person and Inside
When I learned as a graduate student that I could take a workshop with Denis Johnson at the Michener Center, I was nervous to meet him and also electrified. Few books meant more to me at that time than Jesus’ Son and Angels. I loved his work because he didn’t write like anyone else — he was gritty and lyrical, sacred and profane. I guess it’s not surprising he didn’t teach like anyone else either. I think his process was intuitive, mysterious perhaps even to him. He was shambling, unguarded, and had no prepared speeches. He didn’t line edit your work or give lectures on structure, or whatever conventional workshop leaders might do — but a lot of the things he said have never left me.
Once, a young person in our workshop handed in a seemingly autobiographical story about a child. It wasn’t, to be honest, very accomplished. Denis’ main comment was “It’s good you’re writing about your childhood now, because when you’re older, you won’t be able to remember it the same way,” which struck me as both generous and nakedly sad.
When I went to his office to ask for advice on the novel I was just starting to write, Denis more or less shrugged at the impossibility of offering advice. “You have to learn to write this novel, and anything you learn won’t teach you how to write the next one.” It was infuriating to hear and also, I now realize, true. In class he talked about Raymond Carver, about what it meant to him to study with Carver at Iowa; how as a young writer, an undergraduate, he just wanted to be in the library where Carver had been, to sit in the same chair. He wept as he said this. Later that semester a friend of mine, a literary agent, came to town and wanted me to arrange lunch with Denis. When I asked him about it, he blanched. “Do I owe her money?” “No, you’re one of her idols” I said stubbornly, and insisted they meet. (This makes me cringe in retrospect — I wonder how often he must have heard that, and what a burden it must have been.) We took him to lunch. He ordered a cheeseburger, and when it arrived it was not done the way he ordered it. He wept a little at this too. It made me smile, and now it amazes me to remember it — how little armor he had, how he chose to live without it.
Fiction writer, author of Pull Me Under
I was lucky to be in Denis Johnson’s workshop at the Michener Center two years ago. He was an unorthodox and beloved teacher. That first day, he told us he was a crier. But we shouldn’t worry, it usually passed quick. He cried three times that semester: One over Mavis Gallant’s “The Latehomecomer,” one over how hard writing is, always, but how beautiful to get it right, and one I forget.
He said that if we didn’t feel like submitting stories to workshop, we didn’t have to. “What’s best is to just sit around and talk.” One day he brought in two metal balls and made us all hold them and decide which was heavier. The difference in weight was very tiny but we found we could usually tell the heavier one if we didn’t think about it too hard. Denis was DELIGHTED by this. We spent an hour holding the balls; he was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement at how much more our minds knew than our brains. And he never said, “This is like writing,” or anything like that. He was just awestruck. We left class early that day and walked over to Crown & Anchor where he ordered a burger and gave the name “Elvis.”
I submitted two stories to workshop that semester. One was previously published, but I wasn’t happy with it anymore and unsure why. He knew. It was the ending. Who knows more about endings than DJ? “This sounds very END-Y,” he said of the final paragraph. “But it’s not really an ending.” But he liked the story in general, which was good, because he HATED the next story I put up. It’s one of my most memorable Michener moments.
The second story was a shitty first draft with magic in it. I volunteered because no one else had anything. I thought I was being gracious. Denis hated that fucking story so much, it was shocking and, in retrospect, just as delightful as the metal balls. He hated it so much he gesticulated wildly with the pages, yelling “Is this your best work?” He knocked his Red Bull off the grand old table onto the blue carpet. I said, “It’s a first draft?” and blacked out. Afterward I tried to flee but fell off my bike in the road in front of everyone.
Another time he told us about going on a weeklong silent retreat. He thought he and his roommate liked one another and looked forward to talking. When the week was up, he eagerly greeted his roommate. His roommate quietly said, “I had a very expensive watch, and it’s gone.”
His joy and sorrow were on the surface. He didn’t give a shit about hiding them. So many of us hide them in public and call them back when we write. As if they will continue to respond!
Now I remember the third time Denis cried. He was talking about what makes a story interesting; how it’s the little things, how all the tricks we try as writers are often bullshit. And he wells up with tears and says, “There’s nothing more fascinating than watching a guy trying to untie a knot from his shoelace. Nothing.”
There’s something wonderful about a teacher who insists he knows as little, or less than you. It makes you feel like maybe you can write.
Author of The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh
In the spring of 1994, Denis Johnson was my workshop teacher and thesis adviser at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember he had the sort of charisma that is impossible to imitate or fake — everyone was either in love with him, or for the few who were not, annoyed that everyone was in love with him. He told stories of when he was a student there in poetry — of how this or that famous writer was not so beloved, he assured us, in workshop. But he made it more than gossip: “You don’t know what someone can do just from what they show you here,” he said of one poet who used to drive him crazy and was now one of his favorites. In that little anecdote was a story about the long game of writing, and the false intensity of a present that feels so permanent.
For me, he was important in several different ways. He was a poet who also wrote fiction, which I was too at the time—this was not so common then. I remember with one of my stories he said, “This has the feeling of a lit match carried through a storm.” He then spoke of the importance of guarding one’s original inspiration all the way to the end. That story was an experiment in writing about the queer punk scene in San Francisco in the early 1990s. (The writing of certain stories in the beginning of your career has the feeling of something that makes you as you make it — this was one of those for me.) It was not easy to present that kind of work in 1994, and so to be greeted like this by him alerted me to my own powers. It conferred the feeling of graduating from that place as nothing else did.
Emily Rapp Black
Author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World
I met Denis Johnson as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin where I was a student in fiction in the early 2000s. On the first day of class we were nervous and star struck, but Denis was friendly, chatty, kind, and more than anything else, he was open. Within the first hour, Denis read aloud from J.D. Salinger’s APerfect Day for Bananafish. In the middle of the story he stopped and wiped his eyes, his voice cracking with emotion. “Isn’t that a beautiful line?” he asked. I wish now that I could remember which one.
He could have entered the space of eager graduate students arrogantly, even cruelly, and we likely would have accepted it. Certainly his epic reputation made many of us assume he would be anything but kind, least of all so emotional. Instead he read aloud from one of his favorite stories and burst into tears, as he continued to do throughout the semester. His great empathy and willingness to be vulnerable, not venerated and worshiped, made him a terrific leader of workshop. It is a model, I believe, of how to remain an artist — even when one becomes a kind of cult figure.
I also credit Johnson with giving me the greatest editorial gift, although at first it felt less like a gift and more like a massive moment of embarrassment. One day he announced he had hired actors to read aloud our stories for workshop. Hearing my overly long, overly lyrical story go on and on and on for more than an hour (Four metaphors per page! Overkill!) while I slashed phrases and lines taught me an invaluable lesson: The best way to edit is to read aloud. To this day, I read everything aloud, from short stories to essays to entire book-length manuscripts. So thanks, Denis. You are missed, and you will be remembered.
Fiction writer and reporter
It was my first fiction teacher, Michael Parker, who turned me onto Denis Johnson in undergrad workshops in Greensboro, North Carolina. Jesus’ Son was the gateway, the pocket-sized paperback with the blackboard cover that I read behind the counter at the bookstore where I worked, a place where I shelved serial romance novels and saved copies of Shotgun News and Hustler for regulars. Reading Jesus’ Son, I felt as I had when I’d first heard the Velvet Underground, from whose lyrics Denis had stolen his title. These were perfect sentences that sliced straight through to the core. Here was a writer acknowledging the things I’d suspected to be true of human beings and the world, confirmed and transformed into bleak, electric language. The words were simultaneously blistering and healing; they stayed with me like scars.
A few years later I was on a plane to Austin, Texas, a place I had never been. We whipped through dense clouds, landed with a sickening thump, and hurtled along the tarmac. I was disoriented and green when I arrived at the Michener Center for Writers as a prospective student. Down the stairs came Denis, whose sentences I knew by heart. He introduced himself, as if he had to, and said, “I was thinking about making a pot of coffee. Want some?” We stood and talked in the kitchen and that day felt like a beautiful augur. In Austin, he was the first person who helped me.
Denis later returned as a visiting writer and I was a student in his fiction workshop. I had not expected the writer of Angels to wear Hawaiian shirts and drive a cherry-red convertible, but who was I to judge? I decided to think of it as a character he was maybe trying out, the Denis Johnson who lived in Austin. I knew that back in Idaho he lived in a remote part of the state near a place named for a local bar, the Good Grief. In class, he was grand and occasionally admonishing, prone to laughter and tears. He hired student actors to read our stories back to us, which I hated at the time. Sometimes he alluded to his past in a far-off way, or spoke of the war-torn places he reported from in Seek, or mentioned his teacher Raymond Carver. In private, talking over stories, he was serious, rigorous, and generous. We sat in his office at Michener and talked about language, the kind of words that exist between people thrown together in certain circumstances of place or misfortune; the kind of language that is never spoken aloud.
A few days after I first met him, Denis invited his students and the visiting prospective fellows over to dinner at his rental in South Austin. Denis and Cindy’s kids drifted in and out of the house, there were plates of spaghetti and salad, and there was a sort of languidness about everything. Off to the side of the kitchen, normally a pantry or a laundry room, was the place Denis wrote. The door had been left slightly open. When you are a young writer you are always looking for clues not only in how to write, but how to be. I remember seeing a small plain table, a stiff uncomfortable-looking chair, a pad of yellow paper, and a typewriter with an index card taped on the wall above. On it, I imagined the three rules he frequently dictated (“Write naked. Write in blood. Write from exile.”) or a quote from Whitman he often recited, though I didn’t let myself look long enough to tell. Some dirty clothes were tossed on the side of a washing machine. I saw Denis just a couple times after our workshop — the years in which he published Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke — and I still try to square the image of that red convertible with the idea of that stark, demanding little room.
Fiction writer, author of Spectacle
In the early 1990s I lived in Boston and worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square. There was a night I went to a talk by T.C. Boyle, and during the Q & A someone asked what we should be reading. Boyle said Jesus’ Son. The bookstore I worked in was about to close down for good, so we didn’t carry Jesus’ Son. I couldn’t find it anywhere else and eventually I forgot about it. A few months later I was in Seattle helping my brother move and I was staying with a friend from college. There was a day my friend was at work and my brother and I were fighting, so I went for a long walk.
This moment is now personally significant, marking the first time I had walked alone aimlessly through a city I didn’t know. I ended up in a bookstore that had one copy of Jesus’ Son that I found while looking for something else. The next day I was in the Seattle airport. I was feeling bad about leaving my brother after our fight, I was feeling bad about a lot of things, so I started Jesus’ Son in a dark mood and read it in its entirety, sitting there, waiting. I’ve heard people say reading something great makes them feel less alone. But reading something great often has the opposite effect on me. With Jesus’ Son, I was acutely aware of my aloneness, even in that crowded airport. Coming out of the book, I remember looking up at the strangers around me. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I’m thinking of a line from the first story in the collection: “…he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Something like frustration. Some beautiful awareness of our limitations. I still can feel it.
Editor at Rolling Stone, author of Searching for John Hughes
A few minutes after I saw the news that Denis Johnson had passed away, I took down Angels, his first novel, off my shelf and started to read it for the first time in over a decade. This is something I find myself doing whenever somebody whose art I appreciate passes. A few days earlier, I found myself revisiting Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger after Chris Cornell died, and I binged on more than a few of Nora Ephron’s films after her passing in 2012. This is how I cope.
Johnson’s books are scattered around my apartment. Like so many others, I read the stories in Jesus’ Son at the moment in my life when I found fiction really starting to impact my thinking. I’ve always kept a copy the way some people always have a Bible or specific bottle of Scotch in the house, but this night I decided to go back to the start of his career after reading a few of his poems to get warmed up. I reread the entire book in one sitting.
Angels was a novel that, when I read it at around 24 or 25, I told myself I had to read. Today, I realize maybe I was reading it the wrong way. I was under the influence of Jesus’ Son, and the idea that Johnson — like Lou Reed, who wrote the song the book gets its name from — was sketching a certain kind of person he had observed and wanted to write about; people living on the fringes, messed up people, criminals, junkies, and “weirdos,” as Matt Bell writes in his moving eulogy. I’d thought Johnson was commenting on those people, and nothing else. Like many other things in my twenties, I was so wrong. While he writes about people who are messed up, what becomes clear is that Johnson didn’t necessarily believe we were born sinners, his characters didn’t come out screwed up and weird. They’re victims of America, its weirdness and dysfunction; American dreams turned into nightmares.
Poet, author of Dearest Creature and Scattered at Sea
When I first read Denis Johnson, his poetry and prose knocked the wind out of me in the best way, and his writing has never failed, upon frequent re-readings, to leave me breathless. On every level I love his work: the mind behind it, individual sentences or lines, how he humanizes “twistedness” and all that seethes within his characters, his dark grace in dealing with insane behavior and suffering (including the self-induced variety), his intensity on the page, his gift for making the strange relatable and the relatable strange, and the weird humor that gleams beneath.
I began with the prose. When Jesus Son came out in 1992, I was stunned by the stories’ mix of beauty and harshness, and the way he wielded images. Then I backtracked to the poems. After that, I had to ask myself, how the hell was this guy so good at both genres? Had anybody ever written about being high, caught the glory, hilarity and crazy desolation better than him? When I read his work, I re-learn that writing about extreme states or violence or being under the influence never need be limited to just that, but can be a deep dive into the hallucinatorily human, into our wildest capacities. His fiction goes way beyond ‘poetic prose’ for me. Car Crash While Hitchhiking and Emergency are two of my favorite stories, ever. I’ve never read a poem of his that didn’t give me a wonderful shiver.
Novelist, author of The Animals
I’ve been looking over my friend Denis Johnson’s writing in the silence after his demise, marveling anew at the moments of grace in his work, the way he turns toward the spirit, the divine, just when it seems that to do so would be, is, utterly impossible. Yet is it not true that whenever we reach those moments in his books and stories and poems and plays, what we come to understand is that he has been quietly, deftly, directing us toward our own souls with every scene, with every sentence, with every word? So that when the great surprise comes and we stand face to face with that bright light that is — what? God? the universe? our very selves? — there is no great surprise at all. He has been telling us all along that it is coming: a reckoning which is, in the end, deliverance itself. Oh how he hands you the great gift you think is a bullet, a feather, a small smooth pile of pills like tiny blue stones, a whole collection of objects which, when you look later, is only your own heart held wild and beating in your hands. What a marvel you were, my friend. And so what a marvel you will ever be. Godspeed. In those darkest of nights I will forever think of your light. You saved me. God knows you saved us all.
International best-seller Haruki Murakami has a new short story collection out, entitled Men Without Women. To celebrate, here is an excerpt from his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” published in the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business. In it, Murakami muses on what it takes to become a novelist by analyzing his own methods and experience, and he gives us a glimpse into his creative process. Although Murakami has published numerous essay collections in Japanese, little of his short nonfiction is available in English. This essay was translated by Ted Goosesen, and it, and this issue of Monkey Business, are a treat.
We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story. Their numbers are countless, but when I am focused on my writing I know without thinking exactly which drawer holds what and can immediately put my hands on what I am looking for. Memories I could never recall otherwise come naturally to me. It’s a great feeling to enter into this elastic, unrestrained state, as if my imagination had pulled free from my thinking mind to function as an autonomous, independent entity. Needless to say, for a novelist like me the information stored in my “chest” is a rich and irreplaceable resource.
…Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.
First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!
Emma Garman | Longreads | February 2017 | 6 minutes (1,788 words)
In the fall of 1894, a New Jersey reader wrote to George du Maurier, the Franco-British author and satirical cartoonist whose Harper’s Monthly serial, Trilby, had just come out as a novel. The concerned correspondent asked that his mind be put to rest regarding the decorousness of relations between Trilby, the young heroine, and musical genius Svengali, under whose hypnotic spell she becomes an overnight opera sensation. Du Maurier replied politely but briefly: “I beg to say that you are right about Trilby. When free from mesmeric influence, she lived with him as his daughter, and was quite innocent of any other relation.” His assurance was published in TheArgonaut, a San Francisco weekly, thus alleviating any similar fears for the girl’s reputation among that paper’s readership. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, a woman had a disagreement with her husband over Trilby’s morals, culminating in her smashing an earthenware jar over his head. Luckily for the woman, the injured party declined to give evidence in court. Perhaps he appreciated that when it came to Trilby, emotions ran high.
Irish-Scotch-French model and laundress Trilby O’Ferrall was partly based on real women, including a 17-year-old girl, nicknamed Carry, whom du Maurier and his friend Felix Moscheles knew as art students—and amateur mesmerists—in Belgium in the late 1850s. With her “rich crop of brown hair, very blue inquisitive eyes, and a figure of peculiar elasticity,” Carry modeled nude for them and allowed herself to be hypnotized. Her soul, Moscheles later claimed, “was steeped in the very essence of Trilbyism.” Du Maurier’s granddaughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, concurred: “Carry . . . had the same camaraderie, the same boyish attraction, the same funny shy reserve.” Another inspiration was Anna Bishop, an opera star reputed to be in sinister thrall to her older lover-manager, the French harpist and composer Robert Nicolas-Charles Bochsa. In 1839, Bishop caused a scandal by leaving her husband for Boscha, and to his musical accompaniment, the legend went, she sang as she never had before. Read more…
For Murakami, how we eat is a reflection of ourselves. In 1Q84, The Dowager is a wealthy septuagenarian widow who eats natural ingredients and French-influenced lunches like “boiled white asparagus, salad Niçoise, and a crabmeat omelet.” She eats small portions and drinks her tea, “like a fairy deep in the forest sipping a life-giving morning dew.” You get the sense from her diet and table manners not only that she’s well-bred and refined, but almost enlightened. Compare her to Ushikawa, a sleazy lawyer-turned-private-investigator whose family left him and who has no life outside of stalking people under the guise of work. He’s a self-loathing scumbag and he eats like one, too. Where the Dowager eats fresh vegetables, Ushikawa eats processed food like canned peaches and sweet jam buns, and goes days without having a hot meal. The Dowager treats her body like a temple, Ushikawa treats his like a garbage disposal. She is at peace with herself, he is not.
Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Bookson the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.
I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”
Anthony Bourdain’s on-screen persona strikes a careful balance between discipline and recklessness. In her Eater essay on Bourdain’s writing career, Maria Bustillos reveals a similar dynamic at play in his early works of fiction, and all the way back to his suburban upbringing in New Jersey:
Bourdain came of age in the mid-1970s, a time of no brakes at all, a moment of pure hedonism in America. “Decadence” meant the dark beauty and excitement of debauchery, rather than anything gnarly. (The gnarly part was coming up fast, but it was a ways off yet.) A keen reader even as a teen growing up in Leonia, New Jersey, he wolfed down Hunter S. Thompson, Orwell, Burroughs, Lester Bangs, and I bet Baudelaire and DeQuincey; listened to the Stooges, the Dolls, Roxy Music, the Velvets, and The Ramones. (He dedicated his 2006 essay collection, The Nasty Bits, “To Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee.”)
The only culture worth knowing then was the counterculture. The Vietnam War began in 1956, the year of his birth, and ended the year he turned nineteen — surely now, in 1975, the reign of the liars and the squares had ended for good. Cocaine was routinely touted as a natural, plant-based high — health food, practically. (“It’s made from leaves!”) There was, as yet, no AIDS. Peak Free Love had arrived. That the young Bourdain literally “wanted to be a junkie” only meant that he was a little more committed than most to the prevailing atmosphere of pleasure and abandon. “I always wanted to be a criminal,” he confesses blithely in the essay, “A Life of Crime.” He once told an interviewer that he was expelled from Vassar as the result of a “depraved incident” involving angry lesbians and firearms.
This rebel son was raised in an ultra-civilized suburban family atmosphere. His mother, Gladys, was a New York Times editor, and her byline, G.S. Bourdain, appears over Times stories about Robbe-Grillet, opera stars, Cinecitta and the opening of Fauchon in Manhattan; her subjects and her writing both are suggestive of high standards, formality, propriety. Sam Sifton once described her as “a legendary editor… with a legendary temper.” She was a good cook, too. Bourdain describes favorite childhood dishes now and then — his mother’s meatloaf, her crème renversée — though his memories of the crisply pressed shorts and matching socks he and his younger brother were made to wear as kids, boarding the Queen Mary for a vacation in France, are not so fond.
In Vulture, book critic Christian Lorentzen suggests we dispense with terms like “postmodern” and “postwar” when discussing novels, and instead analyze them relative to the presidential administrations under which they were released.
What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).
That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.
In a candid interview at the Guardian, author Paul Auster — who turns 70 next month — discusses his breadth of work over the decades, American life and politics in the age of Trump, and his new novel, 4321, which he refers to as the biggest book of his life.
“I’ve been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead,” he says. And he has decided to act: “I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself.”
In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam war and the student protests at Columbia University in 1968. I ask Auster if there any connections to be made between then and now. “Tumultuous as those times were, they weren’t as depressing as what’s going on today,” he reflects. “How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe we’re responsible for one another.”
Below is the first chapter from The Veins of the Ocean, the new novel by author Patricia Engel. Thanks to Engel and Grove Press for sharing it with the Longreads community.
* * *
When he found out his wife was unfaithful, Hector Castillo told his son to get in the car because they were going fishing. It was after midnight but this was nothing unusual. The Rickenbacker Bridge suspended across Biscayne Bay was full of night fishermen leaning on the railings, catching up on gossip over beer and fishing lines, avoiding going home to their wives. Except Hector didn’t bring any fishing gear with him. He led his son, Carlito, who’d just turned three, by the hand to the concrete wall, picked him up by his waist, and held him so that the boy grinned and stretched his arms out like a bird, telling his papi he was flying, flying, and Hector said, “Sí, Carlito, tienes alas, you have wings.”
Then Hector pushed little Carlito up into the air, spun him around, and the boy giggled, kicking his legs up and about, telling his father, “Higher, Papi! Higher!” before Hector took a step back and with all his might hoisted the boy as high in the sky as he’d go, told him he loved him, and threw his son over the railing into the sea.
Nobody could believe it. The night fishermen thought they were hallucinating but one, a sixty-year-old Marielito, didn’t hesitate and went in after Carlito, jumping feet first into the dark bay water while the other fishermen tackled Hector so that he couldn’t run away. The police came, and when all was said and done, little Carlito only had a broken collarbone, and Cielos Soto, the fisherman who saved Carlito, developed a permanent crook in his back that made him look like a big fishing hook when he walked until his death ten years later.
Hector Castillo was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison—you know the way these things go—but he killed himself right after the sentencing. Not by hanging himself from the cypress tree in the front yard like he’d always threatened since that’s the way his own father had chosen to depart this life. No. Hector used a razor purchased off some other lifer in a neighboring unit and when they found him, the floor of his cell was already covered in blood. But Carlito and I didn’t hear about all that till much later.
Since Carlito had no memory of the whole disaster, Mami fed us a story that our father died in Vietnam, which made no sense at all because both Carlito and I were born years after Vietnam, back in Colombia. But that was before we learned math and history, so it’s no wonder she thought her story would stick. And forget about the fact that Hector was born cojo, with a dragging leg, and never would have been let into any army.
In fact, the only clue we had about any of this mess was that Carlito grew up so scared of water that Mami could only get him in the bathtub once a week, if she was lucky, which is why Carlito had a rep for being the smelliest kid on the block and some people say that’s why he grew up to be such a bully.
But then, when he was fourteen and our Tío Jaime decided it was time for Carlito to get drunk for the first time, only Jaime got drunk and he turned to Carlito over the folding card table on our back patio and said, “Mi’jo, it’s time you know the truth. Your father threw you off a bridge when you were three.”
Patricia Engel. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.
He went on to say that Hector wouldn’t have lost it if Mami hadn’t been such a puta, and next thing you know, Carlito had our uncle pinned to the ground and smashed the beer bottle across his forehead.
He was asking for it, I guess.
Mami had no choice but to tell Carlito and me the real story that same night.
In a way, I always knew something like that had happened. It was the only way to explain why my older brother got such special treatment his whole life—everyone scared to demand that he go to school, that he study, that he have better manners, that he stop pushing me around.
El Pobrecito is what everyone called him, and I always wondered why.
I was two years younger and nobody, and I mean nadie, paid me any mind, which is why, when our mother told the story of our father trying to kill his son like we were people out of the Bible, part of me wished our papi had thrown me off that bridge instead.
* * *
All of this is to tell you how we became a prison family.
It’s funny how these things go. After Carlito went to jail, people started saying it was his inheritance—que lo llevaba en la sangre. And Dr. Joe, this prison shrink I know who specializes in murderers, told me that very often people seek to reenact the same crime that was inflicted upon them. I said that sounded a lot like fate, which I am strictly opposed to, ever since this bruja on Calle Ocho, a blue-haired Celia Cruz knockoff with a trail of customers waiting outside her shop door, told me no man was ever going to fall in love with me on account of all the curses that have been placed on my slutty mother.
What happened is that Carlito, when he was twenty-two, heard that his Costa Rican girlfriend, Isabela, was sleeping with this insurance guy from Kendall. And that’s it; instead of just dumping her like a normal person would, he drove over to her house, kissed her sweet on the lips, told her he was taking her daughter by her high school boyfriend out to buy a new doll at the toy store, but instead, Carlito drove over to the Rickenbacker Bridge and, without a second’s hesitation, he flung baby Shayna off into the water like she was yesterday’s trash going into the landfill.
But the sea wasn’t flat and still like the day Carlito had gone in. Today it was all whitecapped waves from a tropical storm moving over Cuba. There were no fishermen on account of the choppy waters, just a couple of joggers making their way over the slope of the bridge. After Shayna went in, Carlito either repented or thought better of his scheme and jumped in after the little girl, but the currents were strong and Shayna was pulled under. Her tiny body is still somewhere down there, though somebody once told me that this water is actually full of sharks, so let’s be realistic here.
When the cops showed up and dragged my brother out of the water, Carlito tried to play the whole thing off like it was one big, terrible accident. But there were witnesses in sports bras who lined up to testify that Carlito had tossed the child like a football into the angry Atlantic.
If you ask him now, he’ll still say he didn’t mean to do it; he was just showing the baby the water and she slipped out of his arms—“You know how wiggly little kids are, Reina. Tú sabes.”
I’m the only one who listens because, since they arrested him, Carlito’s been in solitary confinement for his own protection.
If there’s one thing other inmates don’t tolerate, it’s a baby killer.
* * *
This is Florida, where they’re cool about putting people to death. After the Supreme Court banned capital punishment in the seventies, this state was the first to jump back into the execution business. I used to be one of those people saying “an eye for an eye,” even when it came down to my own father, who was already dead, God save his soul. But now that my brother is on death row, it’s another story. Mami doesn’t go with me to see Carlito. She’s over it. Not one of those mothers who will stand by her son till his dying day and profess his innocence. She says she did her best to make sure he grew up to be a decent man and the day he snapped, it was clear the devil had taken over.
“Out of my hands,” she says, smacking her palms together like there’s dust on them.
The last time the three of us were together was the day of the sentencing. I begged the judge for leniency, said my brother was young and could still be of use to society, even if he got life and was stuck banging out license plates for the rest of his days. But it wasn’t enough.
After she blew Carlito her last kiss good-bye, Mami began to cry, and her tears continued all night as she knelt before the altar in her bedroom, candles lit among roses and coins offered to the saints in hopes of a softer sentence. I heard her cry all night, but when I tried to comfort her, Mami brushed me off as if I were the enemy and told me to leave her alone.
The next morning she announced her tears had run out and Carlito was no longer her son.
Mami’s got a dentist boyfriend in Orlando who she spends most of her time with, leaving me in the Miami house alone, which wouldn’t be so bad if I had any kind of life to fill this place. But I use up all my free time driving down US 1 to the South Glades Penitentiary. We’re lucky Carlito got placed in a prison just a few hours’ drive south and not in center of the state or up in the panhandle, and that he gets weekly visitation rights, not monthly like most death row killers.
I want to say you’d be surprised by the kind of people who go visit their relatives and lovers in jail, but really you wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s just like you see on TV—desperate, broken-toothed women in ugly clothes, or other ladies who dress up like streetwalkers to feel sexy among the inmates and who are waiting for marriage proposals from their men in cuffs, even if they’re in maximum security and the court has already marked them for life or death sentences. There are women who come with gangs of kids who crawl all over their daddies, and there are the teenagers and grown-up kids who come and sit across the picnic tables bitter-lipped while their fathers try to apologize for being there.
Then there are the sisters, like me, who show up because nobody else will. Our whole family, the same people who treated my brother like he was baby Moses, all turned their backs on Carlito when he went to the slammer. Not one soul has visited him besides me. Not an uncle, a tía, a primo, a friend, anybody. This is why I take visiting him so seriously and have spent just about every weekend down there for the past two years, sleeping at the South Glades Seaside Motel, which is really a trailer park full of people like me who became transients just to be close to their locked-up sweethearts.
I’m not allowed to bring Carlito snacks or gifts since he got moved to the maximum-security prison. If I could, I would bring him candy bars because, back when he was a free man, Carlito spent a big cut of his paycheck from his job at the bank on chocolate. I mean, the boy was an addict, but you could never tell because Carlito was thin like a palm tree and had the smoothest complexion you’ve ever seen. Carlito got it together late in high school, and even made it into college and graduated with honors. I’m telling you, even Mami said it was a milagro. He got into a training program at a bank and was working as a teller, but they said after a few years he’d be a private banker, moving big money, and his dream was to work at one of the Brickell banks that hold the cash of all our Latin nations.
Carlito would move our family up—make enough so that our mother wouldn’t have to paint nails anymore. That was the plan.
Carlito, now, is fat like you’d never have predicted. He says it’s a prison conspiracy given all the mashed potatoes they feed the inmates, and he thinks everything is laced with hormones meant for cows. He has to eat his meals alone in his cell and not in the chow hall like the regular lifers. He doesn’t get to work out in the yard with the other prisoners, he just gets an hour a day to walk laps around a small fenced-in concrete cage with a chicken-wire roof they call “the kennel.”
Sometimes he gets his rec time deducted because a guard decides to write him up for some made-up offense. So he mostly does his routines in his little cell—push-ups, sit-ups, and squats—but he still looks like a two-hundred-fifty-pound troll because Carlito’s hair started to fall out the day of his sentencing. That luscious, shiny Indian hair went straight into the communal shower drain and now my brother, barely twenty-five, looks like he’s somebody’s grandfather, with anxious creases burrowed into his forehead and a nose that turned downward into a beak the day he lost his freedom.
He’s not your typical inmate; he doesn’t try to act remorseful or even say he’s innocent anymore because really, after the first appeal to overturn his conviction was denied, we sort of lost hope. He did the whole thing of writing letters to Isabela before the trial, apologizing even though he says it wasn’t his fault, but even then you could tell Carlito’s heart wasn’t in it.
He blames Papi for all this, and then Mami. Says maybe Tío Jaime was right, if Mami hadn’t been such a puta all those years ago, none of this would have happened.
I don’t tell my brother that Dr. Joe, who works in Carlito’s prison and sometimes meets me for drinks in the lounge of the South Glades Seaside Motel, told me it probably all comes down to brain chemistry and Carlito may have just been a ticking bomb, and that homicidal tendencies sometimes run in families. I pretended not to be worried by this, acted nonchalant, and even went so far as to lie to Dr. Joe and say, “I guess I lucked out because Carlito and I have different fathers.” I believed this for a while, but Mami said, “Lo siento, mi corazón. Hector was your papi too.”
Dr. Joe is familiar with Carlito’s case. Not just from the newspapers but because he reviewed his files when assigned to the Glades prison, hoping Carlito was in need of some kind of counseling. He says he’s doing research on the ways solitary confinement can change a person’s mind over time. He got permission to scan lifers’ brains to compare the ones who are segregated from the main prison population and those who are not. I asked him if it’s right to run them through tests like they’re animals, but Dr. Joe said, “It’s for science, Reina,” and he can already prove being in isolation makes inmates nearsighted and hypersensitive to sound and light. Solitary can also make a person psychotic, paranoid, and develop hallucinations, he says, but it’s hard to tell who is being honest about their nervous breakdowns because, even if lots of inmates check into prison as mentally ill, some just want to be labeled crazy to take or trade the free pills.
Carlito wants nothing to do with Dr. Joe or the other prison shrinks and refuses to talk to any of them. Dr. Joe tried playing the insider, standing outside Carlito’s cell door, peering through the small reinforced glass windowpane, saying he knew Carlito was innocent, and he was on his side. If only Carlito was willing to talk, maybe he could help him with his next appeal. Carlito didn’t bite.
Sometimes I suspect Dr. Joe only acts interested in me so that I’ll soften Carlito, convince him to hand himself over for Dr. Joe’s research, persuade him the way Dr. Joe tries to persuade me that since they won’t let Carlito take classes or socialize like other inmates, submitting to his study is a small way to feel useful, give something of himself, and it’s also a way to have interpersonal contact those weeks when he doesn’t exchange words with a single human besides the prison guards, and me.
“All of this has to be so hard on you, Reina,” Dr. Joe said to me the first time we met at the motel bar. “You must be overwhelmed with so many feelings.”
Dr. Joe thinks I have anger toward my brother because when I was nine he locked me in my bedroom closet for hours, told my mother I’d gone to the neighbor’s to play, and I had no choice but to pee in a shoebox. Also, because when our mother was at work, he would make me take off my clothes and sit around watching TV naked, or sometimes he’d make me get up and dance, and when I refused, he’d pull out a knife from a kitchen drawer and hold it to my neck.
But I tell Dr. Joe my brother was mostly a good brother because he never did dirty things to me like the brothers of some of my friends. And when a girl from school started bullying me in the eighth grade, saying I was an ugly junior puta, Carlito went over to her house one night with a wrestling mask on his face, crept into her room, and beat her out of her sleep.
Nobody ever found out it was him.
He did that for me.
Joe—he told me to stop calling him doctor but I keep forgetting—thinks I’m confused. He buys me beers and told me he’s thirty-two, which is really not much older than my age, twenty-three. He’s from Boston, which he says is nothing like South Florida. He might even be cute if he got a normal haircut, not his side-parted dusty brown shag, and lost those round glasses that look like they belong in 1985. He has a condo in Key Largo and sometimes invites me there. Just yesterday he said I could sleep there if I wanted, so I don’t have to spend all my money at the prison motel. I said thanks, but no thanks. I make good enough money to pay for this piece of paradise.
“You’re real pretty,” he said last night when I walked him to his car on the gravel driveway outside the lobby. “You got a boyfriend up there in Miami?”
“No, I come with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean.”
I was thinking specifically about the last guy, Lorenzo, a plastic surgeon who picked me up at Pollo Tropical. We went for dinner a few times and when we finally fucked at a hotel, he told me he’d do my tetas free if I promised to tell everyone they were his work. Then he wanted to take me to Sanibel for a few days, but I said my weekends were reserved for Carlito.
I still remember his eyes when I explained.
“You’re Carlos Castillo’s sister?”
That was the end of that.
Joe laughed as if I’d meant the baggage thing as a joke, and then swallowed his smile when he realized I hadn’t.
“You’re a great girl. Any man would be lucky to be with you.”
I smiled at Joe, even though I feel like people only say shit like that when they know you’re already a lost cause.