Denis Johnson died of liver cancer at age 67 on the Mendocino coast. J. and I agree that seems like a good place from which to go. One of the obituaries, needing to be Fair and Balanced, noted that B.R. Myers had panned Tree of Smoke in the Atlantic; the pan starts with Myers admitting that this is the only Johnson he’s read and he doesn’t get it. Tree of Smoke isn’t my favorite novel either and I don’t think Myers is generally wrong about the faults he calls out, but what a wasted opportunity, to have just trotted him out for another installment of his check-the-naked-emperor routine (which makes me laugh when directed at Jonathan Franzen) instead of giving the job to someone who knew Johnson’s early work and might have been able to tease out how, in this case, the formal demands of the Latterday American Novel defeated one of the best writers we had.
I have Angels, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon and Jesus’ Son still on the shelf. I remember reading The Stars at Noon for the first time, discovering those sentences from “The Sprawl” that I thought Kim Gordon had made up herself and getting the secret handshake... but Fiskadoro is the one I’d like to reread now. I met Johnson in person twice and both times came away with an impression of sentiment and humility. (The first was in October 2001; someone asked him what is the duty of the writer in these times; he said he had no clue.) If there had to be some unavoidable name while learning to write in the oughts, we could have done far worse.
Sixteen years later and I’m still sending out queries on the weekends; at least everyone takes email now. Hot and cool weather is incompletely mixed in the yard. The literary agency websites explain that their agents are committed to working closely with authors over the course of their careers. A liking for historical fiction is characterized as a “soft spot.” The agent may have recently moved to the suburbs in order to cook in a full-size kitchen. An entity that cooks in a full-size kitchen is no bean-counting algorithm: no, something warmer.
My public-sector job is in part founded on the promise of a pension, which is as likely still to be there when I need it as any other common good in this country. Living with an eventual pension in mind injects an element of providential thinking into one’s life that I don’t like. Charity is a virtue, faith is sometimes a virtue, hope is pernicious. If one dies of liver cancer at 67, the pension has not much mattered, unless there’s someone who depends on you. Of course people depend on you. I’d like to start another project but it’s too soon, the last project too distracting as it flickers in and out of reality with every new email.
Without a calling to hand, there’s only labor and pleasure, and the endless rebalancing of one’s portfolio between the two. We should do better.