Bedside Books

Nobody Move & Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson – Both of the men in these two novels are specialties of Johnson: flawed souls who could fall apart in uncountable ways because their lives have been lived on the other side of normal sensibility for too long. In Nobody Move, a darker than dark crime noir, Jimmy Luntz discovers he can pull the trigger – kill people. He’s taken up by Anita, “another class of person,” a woman way too good for him, a rare beauty, an American Indian who has entered the world of the “other” people. That means both us and a world we can’t see, but she can. She has stunning beauty masking strength, a real aphrodisiac. She talks to spirits. She is braver than brave. She sees into Jimmy’s soul and figures what the hell, he’ll keep her alive for a while longer or die trying. This is Johnson in a stripped down prose, non-stop action, real suspense, everything – as always in his writing – charged and alive. There couldn’t be a better dark jaunt with two desperate, fascinating losers. Real fear – or is it empathy – arose when I read this tale. Of course, you want to rescue Anita, you don’t want her to go away, but…this is crime noir in spades. Good stuff involving bikers and people who collect money for gamblers and loan sharks and drug dealers. Oh, yes, Luntz sings in a Barbershop Chorus. It’s set around Bakersfield, California, and the Feather River – need I say more. Ok, more…at the end, we’re not sure if Anita dies. They might reunite, but they’ve been, as some say, through a grinder turned by some very bad people.

In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Leonard English drives into Provincetown on Cape Cod to start a job as a radio disk jockey and private detective with no experience in either. Men on the street are wearing skirts. He falls for Leanna, a beautiful gay woman he’s assigned to follow, and she’s attracted by his deep communion with God, or what God might radiate if He wanted to bring people to his side, as Lenny might say. Lenny has saintly, apocalyptic visions in which the entire world is charged with God’s spirit, which ultimately leads him to shoot the hat off the local Catholic bishop, or so he imagines. This is Johnson loading up the deck with opposing symbols: sexuality, faith, love and reality. In another life, Leonard must have followed Moses into the desert and enjoyed every minute of it. Normal life in other words is sorely lacking all around, a big disappointment if God is real. He can’t decide. Why all the waiting around? To survive, Leonard has focused his attention on attention itself, and he’s wired into everything around him save for the ability to live a normal life. Again, this is a type of character that Johnson can do better than anyone. At some point, Johnson discovered that he could write about the feelings of consciousness, not the normal feelings consciousness produces but the feeling of feelings themselves. Hard to explain, but I’ve often felt drunk or stoned when reading Johnson as he gets into the mind of these type of people, and I guess that’s the highest tribute I could pay him (no pun there, right?). I’m included in a place few writers can create. I’m not sure if it erases literature and exposes life or if life is erased exposing the power of words. Johnson’s ability to handle people who experience spiritual feelings reminds me of Norman Mailer, another writer who treated spirituality and God with real seriousness. I’ve also just finished On God, a conversation with Mailer with promptings by  J. Michael Lennon. It would have been something to have brought Mailer and Johnson together to talk about some of these matters and how they can play out in people’s lives. Mailer was a Manichean gnostic; Johnson, I think, is probably religious in the sense that he is drawn to the mystery, or else he’s in deep as a practicing born-again Christian. Both men shun religion in the hands of institutions, as well-intentioned as some of them are, but we know from history many have not been well-intentioned as they went forward. Mailer speaks revealingly of the role of ceremony. Johnson has pegged the disturbed fringes, and the loners, as where the most inspired God-seekers reside. That reminds me of Updike’s Lillies of the Field, which has a wonderful section on people who ban together in search of God, as in Waco, Texas, many years ago, one of a long list of apocalyptic callings.

The English Major by Jim Harrison – Back to Jim Harrison again, and in this novel he’s on a roving romp. The character Cliff (as in fallen off) is who Denis Johnson’s flawed lost souls would be if they could get a ticket to a normal life. Cliff gets by. A normal guy, not brilliant, but smarter than most, not full of himself because he’s had too much of a normal life, lacking in a wide range of experiences which he’s now ready to rectify because he finds himself recently divorced and free to wither away or flourish at 60 years old. Is it too old to live out some fantasies? No way…he’s soon driving across America with a former high school student he taught some 20 years ago. His ambition is to travel to all the states and to rename them and their state bird. It’s a grand, large project and Cliff carries it off with aplomb while Harrison drops his perennial wisdom gems for over preened souls: get out of your chair, eat something different, roll the dice of life and double down till you win or understand something valuable. Harrison has perfected a style that rests partially on his non-stop ability to unfurl the discursive in-the-moment workings of Cliff’s mind. Cliff, it turns out, has been selling himself too cheap, and there’s a glimmer toward the end that at 60 he still has something to offer younger, attractive women, but that intimation is left as is, and he rolls back to where he started in life, into his mother and grandmother’s abandoned home, an adventure ended that has shown him he’s ready to knock on new doors, and he’s not nearly the same person as when he set out. Being on the road is a good thing indeed.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino – We leave the Roman consuls and dictators behind in this wonderful book of daily life in the Roman Republic in the second century A.D. This is a type of history that we need more of, as my friend Red Pine says, taking us to the places where significant things occurred. It’s one thing to read about the exploits of the grand names of Roman history and quite another to read about the non-exploits of the nameless in history, where most history really takes place. To read the story of Rome’s evolution as a city, the nature of its streets, its apartments, its shops, its public baths, the theater, the public forums, the nature of education, prostitution, marriage, sexuality, religion, the morning routine after awakening, breakfasts and the evening meals, the nature of clothing, the look of the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, it all adds up to create a living backdrop where the betrayals and bravery of the Roman elite are played out. It brings far away quite close.

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