“A Poem About Baseballs” by Denis Johnson

“A Poem About Baseballs” by Denis Johnson–
 
for years the scenes bustled
through him as he dreamed he was
alive. then he felt real, and slammed
awake in the wet sheets screaming
too fast, everything moves
too fast, and the edges of things
are gone. four blocks away
a baseball was a dot against
the sky, and he thought, my
glove is too big, i will
drop the ball and it will be
a home run. the snow falls
too fast from the clouds,
and night is dropped and
snatched back like a huge
joke. is that the ball, or is
it just a bird, and the ball is
somewhere else, and i will
miss it? and the edges are gone, my
hands melt into the walls, my
hands do not end where the wall
begins. should i move
forward, or back, or will the ball
come right to me? i know i will
miss, because i always miss when it
takes so long. the wall has no
surface, no edge, the wall
fades into the air and the air is
my hand, and i am the wall. my
arm is the syringe and thus i
become the nurse, i am you,
nurse. if he gets
around the bases before the
ball comes down, is it a home
run, even if i catch it? if we could
slow down, and stop, we
would be one fused mass careening
at too great a speed through
the emptiness. if i catch
the ball, our side will
be up, and i will have to bat,
and i might strike out.
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Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a perfect novella

With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.”  I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.

The opening lines hooked me:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.

The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.

Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:

Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:

The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.

The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.

Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].

A review of Angels, Denis Johnson’s first novel

AngelsDenis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.

The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”

Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.

And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.

Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.

The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].

“Quickly Aging Here,” a poem by Denis Johnson

“Quickly Aging Here,” a poem by Denis Johnson—

1
nothing to drink in
the refrigerator but juice from
the pickles come back
long dead, or thin
catsup. i feel i am old
now, though surely i
am young enough? i feel that i have had
winters, too many heaped cold
and dry as reptiles into my slack skin.
i am not the kind to win
and win.
no i am not that kind, i can hear
my wife yelling, “goddamnit, quit
running over,” talking to
the stove, yelling, “i
mean it, just stop,” and i am old and
2
i wonder about everything: birds
clamber south, your car
kaputs in a blazing, dusty
nowhere, things happen, and constantly you
wish for your slight home, for
your wife’s rusted
voice slamming around the kitchen. so few
of us wonder why
we crowded, as strange,
monstrous bodies, blindly into one
another till the bed
choked, and our range
of impossible maneuvers was gone,
but isn’t it because by dissolving like so
much dust into the sheets we are crowding
south, into the kitchen, into
nowhere?

RIP Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson, one of the greatest American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, has died at the age of 67.

In books including Jesus’ SonAngelsTree of Smoke, and Fiskadoro, Johnson created vibrant, intense worlds, simultaneously tragic and hilarious, peopled with weirdos and druggies, criminals and soldiers, those who harm and those who cure. Describing Johnson’s prose style requires employing paradox: His prose seems spare, but it’s also incredibly rich; his narratives dwell in rough realism, but this description belies the refined magic of his writing. Johnson painted a damned and fallen world again and again in his novels, but made a space for his characters to earn redemption. His characters, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come off as cartoonish grotesques, but Johnson’s realism extended into their psyches. The man could create souls.

I cannot understate the impact Johnson’s writing made on my development as a reader. I think I first read Johnson’s story “Emergency” in a collection of stories edited by Tobias Wolff; it was on the reading list for a creative writing class I was taking my first semester of college, and I learned more from analyzing the way Johnson put sentences together than I did from anything else. I made a friend read the story; told another friend about it and he said, “Of course,” and made the mistake of loaning me his first edition hardback copy of Jesus’ Son, which had been out for maybe four or five years at the time. I never gave it back, and it remains one of the books I’ve read the most times over the past 20 years.

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Johnson’s novel-in-stories Jesus’ Son is the perfect gateway drug to hook 18-year olds on a particular kind of American literature forever. Those interested in Johnson should also check out his debut 1983 novel Angels, his perfect novella Train Dreams, or his Vietnam War opus, Tree of Smoke: All make excellent starting places.

I’ll close with one of my favorite paragraphs, the last lines of “Beverly Home,” the last story in Jesus’ Son. The lines encapsulate Johnson’s vision of his world, his characters’ place in that world, and the redemptive spirit that might guide us to create a place for people like us:

All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.


 

I’ll be reposting some of the stuff I’ve written on this blog about Johnson’s books all day today, but for anyone interested, here a bunch of links:

A very short review of Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Audiobook

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Novella

Angels — Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move and the Pleasures of Postmodern Crime Fiction

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson (second review)

Essential Short Story Collections: Jesus’ Son

Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson (first review)

Three Books

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Angels by Denis Johnson. 1989 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Chris Moore.

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Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. 1986 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

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The Stars at Noon by Denis Johnson. 1988 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

A Very Short Review of Denis Johnson’s New Novel, The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is excellent.

Okay: Too short a review? Well. Look, I read it over the weekend, and got a copy of the audiobook version to listen to this week, and then I’ll write a proper review, but here’s publisher FS&G’s blurb, followed by a few quick impressions:

Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.

The Laughing Monsters is not the plot-driven spy novel it pretends to be. The novel’s plot is a shaggy dog story, an excuse for Johnson to riff on how adventure tips into madness, how conflicting identities jam up against loyalties.

Johnson is clearly following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sure, but there are also heavy hints of Moby-Dick here, and even Blood Meridian (McCarthy clearly is the descendant of Melville and Conrad, of course). But mostly Denis Johnson is following Denis Johnson in The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters is also very-much about writing itself: Nair is a writer, and much of the novel takes the form of emails he sends (or writes without sending), notes he scratches on lined paper in dull pencil, and half-mad confessions. Ultimately, the voice that narrates the novel is Nair’s internal composer. The driving force of the story though is Michael Adriko, the charismatic trickster who seems to be creating the plot as he goes along.

More to come, but again, short version: Great stuff.

Read an excerpt from Denis Johnson’s forthcoming novel, The Laughing Monsters

In Arua we took rooms at The White Nile Palace Hotel. Here was the palace, but we’d crossed the Nile twenty kilometers ago. We arrived at night and formed no impression of the surrounding neighborhood except by its sounds—goats and cattle, arguments and celebrations. Surveying the parking area and later the tables in the café, I judged we’d come among missionaries and relief workers—Médecins sans Frontières sorts of people with good, big SUVs and clean hiking shoes. The grounds were well-kept and our quarters were comfortable. I hadn’t quite expected that.

 

At dinner Michael was nowhere in evidence. Davidia and I shared a table with an elderly, exhausted French woman of Arab descent who told us she studied torture. “And once upon a time before this, I spent years on a study of the Atlantic slave trade. Angola. Now it’s an analysis of the practices of torture under Idi Amin. Slavery. Torture. Don’t call me morbid. Is it morbid to study a disease? That’s how we find the cure for it. What is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph—before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn’t take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction.” The woman’s taut, quivering neck, her mouth opening and closing . . . Halfway through her dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce, without a word, she got up and left the table.

Read the rest of the excerpt at FS&G’s blog Work in Progress.

“The Man Who Was Killed” — Denis Johnson

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Lydia Davis/Denis Johnson/Curzio Malaparte (Books Acquired, 4.06.2013)

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Purged the books pictured in the lower right-hand corner and picked up a few: Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, which has intrigued me for awhile now, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoroin the Vintage Contemporaries edition no less!—and Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story, which I somehow haven’t read yet. Hypothesis: Lydia Davis and Denis Johnson may be America’s greatest living novelists (?).

 

“Radio” — Denis Johnson

Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Book Jesus’ Son

Certain books, the ones I’m always looking for and hardly ever finding—true codes of entry into other hard spiritualities—you have to read while you’re walking, say, even through a crowded airport. Such was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Those of us who’ve come out of the serious dope-and-drink world may have forgotten the strange poetry and curious religious cast of events, but Johnson hasn’t. It takes an authentic poet to catch the strange, tragic hope and cheer as well as the squalor of that life, and Johnson surely is one.

Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; from the January, 1994 issue of SPIN.

 

A Short Riff on Those Horrid, Wonderful Vintage Contemporaries Paperbacks of the 1980s

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I’ve been a fan of Vintage Contemporaries for years. I’m pretty sure the first one I ever picked up was Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. I recall being vaguely dismayed about the cover and trying to find another used edition, but thrift won out. This was in the early or mid nineties, and book design was trending toward a more minimal, conceptual style.

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In contrast to a tasteful, minimalist cover, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Cathedral is garishly literal. Ditto the cover for Denis Johnson’s Angels: sure, there’s a symbolic touch in those storm clouds, and a surreal tweak in the laser lights, but there’s something ghastly about the whole design.

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Even the cover for Jerzy Kosinski’s twisted horrorshow-in-vignettes Steps is remarkably literal—sure, the image seems surreal, but it’s straight out of Kosinski’s text. (It’s also one of my favorite covers in the line).

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Anyway, in the past few years I’ve kept an eye out for certain titles from the Vintage Contemporaries line, even if I already own the book in another edition—DeLillo, for instance, or Cormac McCarthy. I was thrilled to find this edition of Suttree earlier this year. (And I’d love to get another copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows; I gave mine away to a friend).

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I’d been wanting to write about the Vintage Contemporaries series for a while now, and had even gone so far as to write to a few artists and designers I know to see if they could put me in touch with a source of info. A few weeks ago, Mahendra Singh was kind enough to point out a thorough, in-depth essay on Vintage Contemporaries over at Talking Covers. Plenty of history, photos, and even interviews. It’s the mother-lode, the post I wished I could’ve mustered. (And if I seem a bit jealous, I can console myself in the knowledge that they used my first pic of Suttree. So there’s that). I encourage you to check it out.

List with No Name #10

1. 2666, Roberto Bolaño

2. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

3.  Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

4. The Last Novel, David Markson

5. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Lydia Davis

6. Agapē Agape, William Gaddis

7. C, Tom McCarthy

8. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

9. Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini

10. Open City, Teju Cole

Books Acquired, 6.25.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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A nice stack from the good folks at Picador this month, including two new entries in their ongoing Nadine Gordimer reissues. I like the design on the series:

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There’s also a reissue of Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which I haven’t read, but will read soon, because Johnson is just one of those writers I’ll end up reading everything by eventually. From a 1991 NYT review of the novel:

There has never been any doubt about Denis Johnson’s ability to write a gorgeous sentence. The author of “Angels,” “Fiskadoro” and “The Stars at Noon” has become increasingly musical in his prose, and his latest novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” depends on such sentences as the primary unit of narrative motion. The novel seems, like a poem, to be written line to line. It is very much a book about one man, one sensibility.

At the outset of the novel, Leonard English, driving to the tip of Cape Cod in the off season, stops for a drink, then spins out of control, running his car onto a traffic island. He ends up taking a taxi to his destination, which is Provincetown. He has attempted suicide before the book’s beginning; now he is moving to the Cape to work for Ray Sands, a private investigator who also owns a small radio station. When we can see him most clearly, English seems very similar to the narrator of the short story — drifting, guilty, in a world of strangers, striving to connect with another person and with his God.

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Last year’s With Liberty and Justice for Some is out now in trade paperback. If you are even slightly familiar Glenn Greenwald’s columns at Salon, you’ll likely know what to expect. For those of us predisposed to agree with his analyses, With Liberty and Justice for Some is likely to inspire outrage and a certain kind of fatigue.

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview between Harper’s Scott Horton and Greenwald:

American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.

There’s an obvious element of hypocrisy in this fact; espousing a principle that one simultaneously breaches in action is hypocrisy’s defining attribute. But there’s also a more positive side: the country’s vigorous embrace of the principle of equality before law enshrined it as aspiration. It became the guiding precept for how “progress” was understood, for how the union would be perfected.

And the most significant episodes of progress over the next two centuries—the emancipation of slaves, the ending of Jim Crow, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, vastly improved treatment for Native Americans and gay Americans—were animated by this ideal. That happened because “blind justice”—equality before law—was orthodoxy in American political culture. The principle was sacrosanct even when it was imperfectly applied.

The Ford pardon of Nixon changed that, radically and permanently. When President Ford went on national television to explain to an angry, skeptical citizenry why the most powerful political actor would be fully immunized for the felonies he got caught committing, Ford expressly rejected the rule of law. He paid lip service to its core principle—the “law is no respecter of persons”—but then tacked on a newly concocted amendment designed to gut that principle: “but the law is a respecter of reality.”

In other words, if—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it willalways be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so Ford’s rationale, predictably, created a template for elite immunity.

The rationale for Ford’s pardon of Nixon was subsequently legitimized, and it created a precedent for shielding the most powerful elites from the consequences of their lawbreaking. The arguments Ford offered are the same ones now hauled out over and over whenever it is time to argue why the most powerful among us should not be held accountable: It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward. This direct assault on the rule of law was pioneered by the pardon of Richard Nixon.

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Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies is a Swedish novel in English Translation by Sarah Death. Look, I’m generally dismissive of Holocaust fiction because 1) the sheer number of books that come in to Biblioklept World Headquarters that use the Holocaust as a milieu and 2) the tacky and generally lazy way that such books often attempt to manipulate their audiences. Still, The Emperor of Lies seems like it’s probably a sight better than most such books, and it’s gotten generally good reviews, including this one from The Independent (UK), which apparently thinks that a book review of five sentences is fine:

Any writer – let alone one from neutral Sweden – who sets out to place another brick in the vast wall of Holocaust fiction must be deluded or inspired. Astonishing to report: Sem-Sandberg belongs in the tiny second band.

Utterly involving, morally scrupulous, written with a verve and pace that belie its dreadful setting, The Emperor of Lies – in Sarah Death’s masterly translation – really does renew the genre.

Its portrait of resistance and survival in the ghetto of Lodz between 1940 and 1944 focuses on the monstrous enigma of Chaim Rumkowski, despotic overlord of his fellow-Jews. Sem-Sandberg catches his capricious charisma. Other characters, who record their fate or fight it, also shine, while their tragic destiny moves on at mesmerising speed.

McSweeney’s #4 (Box of Books Acquired 6.14.2012)

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The novelist John Warner (The Funny Man), in an act of incredible kindness, sent me a copy of McSweeney’s #4, which he helped to put out years ago. In one of our emails, John offers the following:

It could be the best issue ever, a kind of platonic ideal of the McSweeney’s aesthetic before people started saying that things had a McSweeney’s aesthetic, a more innocent time if you will. My memory is that we were selling them at a live event at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant in Chicago that we set up to help promote Neal Pollack’s book, and somehow the leftovers wound up in my trunk and I’ve been hauling them place to place ever since. . .

It’s a sort of fun artifact of the early/carefree days of McSweeney’s before Dave was DAVE, and the whole thing was still very haphazard.

It’s difficult to overstate the range of writers here: Lydia Davis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, a three-act play by Denis Johnson, and much, much more:

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 There are also many short stories, including “On the Set” by John Warner, his second published story:

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It’s wonderfully absurd.

To read something hilarious and absurd and ultimately kind of touching, read John’s interview with critic Kevin Morris, who hated The Funny Man.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Audiobook

Going West (Express Train) — Thomas Hart Benton

A few weeks ago on this blog, I declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella, a claim that I feel even more certain about after listening to Macmillan audio’s new production of the book, read by Will Patton.

Precise, funny, and moving, Train Dreams tells the story of Robert Grainier, a laborer (and eventual hermit of sorts) who makes a life in (and against) the strange wilderness of the Idaho panhandle. The book somehow measures the first half of the twentieth century in the US without overreaching; instead, through Grainier’s human (but anti-social) presence, Johnson traces the end of Manifest Destiny, the last strands of the wild frontier. Train Dreams, poised tautly on a line that divides the mythic and metaphysical from the concrete and real, shows us a world where we might catch a glimpse of wolf-children and angels—the real thing, not just the sham show, not just a pale suggestion.

Moving through the book again via Patton’s expert narration, I was struck by how constructed yet seamless Johnson’s narrative is. Johnson gets so much credit for the precision of his syntax, but a rereading of Train Dreams reveals how tight and layered, yet never obvious, his plot is—how he lays out his themes repeatedly without brazenly calling attention to them. (One of the joys of reading is rereading; one of the joys of a novella is that its brevity allows us to easily reread). The book is a gem.

Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke.

A good reader makes all the difference of course. In the wrong hands—excuse me, wrong voice—a book we thought we knew can come across stifled, squashed; the reader can actually hurt the book, impose the wrong tone: misread. A reader like Patton (and I should credit his director and production team too, of course) can enlarge a book for its audience, shining light on the subtle nuances we might overlook, or even clouding phrases we thought we fully understood, empowering the language with a new ambiguity that enriches the overall reading experience. Highly recommended.

Here’s Patton reading the first part of Train Dreams: