Joy Williams at The New York Times:
Denis Johnson is closest in sensibility to the great Robert Stone, though he lacks that writer’s command of plot and structure. Yet we don’t read Johnson for methodology but for troubled effect and bright astonishments. A writer should write in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it is all about. Sartre says this, more or less, in “What Is Literature?” Johnson writes in just such a way. Life is ludicrous and full of cruel and selfish distractions. Honor is elusive and many find the copious ingestion of drugs necessary. Our ignorance is infinite and our sorrows fearful. We have made an unutterable waste of this world, and our passage through it is bitter and unheroic. Still, the horror can at times be illuminating, and it is necessary that the impossible be addressed. Here is the hapless murderer Bill Houston at the end of Johnson’s first novel, “Angels,” strapped down in the gas chamber, listening to the sound of his heart:
“Boom. . . . Boom! Was there ever anything as pretty as that one? Another coming . . . boom! Beautiful! They just don’t come any better than that. He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it. But it was all right. Boom! Unbelievable! And anothercoming? How many of these things do you mean to give away? He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn’t going to come.”
Writing, like old age and Wyoming, is not for sissies.