I really wanted to read Denis Johnson’s newest–Tree of Smoke, but I didn’t want to spring $27.00 for the hardback, and my library didn’t have it available right away, so I grabbed Resuscitation of a Hanged Man in the interim. I’d never read anything else by this prolific writer, and a reviewer of Tree said that Johnson was his favorite living author. Jumping into Resuscitation was a good move on my part.
In the world of this early (published 1995, set in 1980-81), everything is off kilter, which is to be expected, since we’re looking at it all through the eyes of Lenny English. English has moved to Cape Cod–Provincetown–after an unsuccessful suicide attempt and is trying to reshape his life. He succeeds, but not in a way that most people would define success. He lays out his problem clearly near the beginning of the book:
“I’ve changed addresses eighteen times in the last twelve years, he told Leanna. “I’ve lived in Lawrence, Kansas, that whole time. I’m a nice person, but I have a lot of inside trouble.”
“Inside trouble. What is that” Inside trouble.”
“Unsound thinking. Getting myself all worked up over nothing. You know what I mean.” If you told people these things right away, they discounted it all. Later you could say, I warned you. “I smoke cigarettes,” He told her.
“That’s okay,” she said.
“I eat meat.”
“And you’re aggressive in conversations.”
“That’s true. Yeah. Okay, sometimes I am.”
“That way you don’t have to respond to anyone.”
This happened to be the truth. he looked around. “They have any coffee in this place?”
“When you’re on a bus, nobody sits near you because you look too lonely. I bet you’re lonely, but not because nobody wants to know you. It’s because, really, you don’t want to know anybody.”
He gets a job as a part time private eye/part time DJ. In the course of his investigations, he discovers some mysteries, invents others, solves another, tries hard to give his life a shape, but his “unsound thinking” pursues him. It’s one of the best fictional explorations I’ve read concerning the battle between self-knowledge and the attempts at self-repair based on that knowledge.
Both on the basis of the text and of the short bio I read (Click on Johnson’s name at the top of this piece.), Johnson has had plenty of experience with this kind of problem. English is not some sort of offbeat character invented for effect (for examples of which see Little Children, by Tom Perrotta, in my last blog) but a complex personality created from the inside out and explored with sympathy, humor, and unmerciful authenticity.
I’m really looking forward to Tree of Smoke, but it can’t be much better than this. And I’ve found a new author.