By Denis Johnson
I don't often read collections of short stories, but this was chosen for a book club I wanted to attend, so I went for it.
Johnson's stories are a hazy account of a life on drugs and an attempt to get sober. I have mixed feelings about this book. If I want to read stories of addiction, I'll look for a memoir. However, as I've been told, Johnson's stories are grounded in the facts of his own struggles with addiction.
I have mixed feelings about these stories. The main character is cold and often unlikable. The narration jumps around chronologically and is somewhat vague. But what caught me about Johnson's writing are the poetic moments. Johnson describes the ordinary, like clouds, in extraordinary ways. And the best instances in each story are the narrator's epiphanies of self-reflection. "Work" is one of the better stories, with one of the best reflective statements: "Because, after all, in small ways, it was turning out to be one of the best days of my life, whether it was somebody else's dream or not." It's sentences like these that really stick with me. In "Emergency" (another one of the better stories), the narrator concludes that "nothing I could think up, no matter how dramatic or completely horrible, ever made her repent or love me the way she had at first, before she really knew me." These glimpses of self-awareness and honesty are what give the reader hope; that maybe the narrator could sincerely get clean and improve his life.
What's difficult about this book is that the narrator seems so disconnected from himself. The way he acts and reacts is drastically different from those instances when he steps outside himself to look back on them. On the whole, this is not one of my favorite books, and probably not one I will pick up again. But if you do feel so inclined to read it (and I don't want to discourage any one from doing so, because the book does stretch the limits of reader's expectations of what a story or narration should look like), it is the poetic, insightful moments that will compel you.