I always say that I’ll read more short stories that’s been published in journals and collections, but I haven’t picked up a full collection since reading The Paris Review‘s “Object Lessons.”
En route to my tap dance class yesterday night, I stopped by Greenlight Bookstore, a Brooklyn indie bookstore on Fulton Street to peruse their bookshelves. I was actually looking for a copy of “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,” by Joe Williams, which I read for a grammar course (Amazon sucks, by the way, because they never gave me my order!), but the store didn’t have a copy. Naturally, I gravitated toward the fiction section, and thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find a short story collection to read?”
As if on cue, a bright green and yellow book cover caught my attention. The cover belonged to “Jesus’ Son,” a short story collection by Denis Johnson, whom Newsday calls the “synthesizer of profoundly American voices.”
I love being swept away by a story. That means missing your subway stop because you entrench yourself in an imaginary world. That means being mentally gone. That all happened to me when I read the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” In the middle of a rain storm, the narrator, who’s high and drunk, gets into a car that later kills a man. I got déjà vu, because I remember reading the last line of the story: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” (Turns out it was in “Object Lessons”).
Just take apart that line and see how much you can get from it. It’s in second-person, so you sense that the tone is aggressive. I imagine a man spitting out the word “ridiculous”–maybe even snarling. You can tell that the narrator (“Fuckhead”) is angry without even having to read the whole story. You might even feel pity for him, too, because you wonder why he’s saying this. What leads him to take drugs in the first place? The narrator’s bitterness urges me to turn the pages. He’s a junkie hitchhiking, and the accident changes him, but it doesn’t seem horrible to him in that moment, because he’s still high. Years later, however, he still remembers this accident.
I love writers who can put pressure behind prose, so that it becomes, as one editor once told me, “a story that sticks with you as reader – one that matters today and will matter a year from now.”
I’m hoping to hone my craft by reading many short stories. While I am at work on a novel, I have a list of short stories that need to be submitted. (That’s right, it needs to happen). I recently finished writing another short story called “Let’s Eat Heart for Dinner.” I hope someday that you’ll get to read my stories, and feel the pressure behind my words.
For now: on to the rest of “Jesus’ Son.”
Question for readers: Who are some of your favorite short fiction writers? Comment below!