Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson reads from Train Dreams

On Wednesday, April 11 2012, Denis Johnson gave a reading at UMN’s Coffman Memorial Union Theatre.  The reading was well attended, with a few latecomers scrambling to find seats in the 402-person capacity room.  Johnson read from his recently published novella Train Dreams (FSG, 2011).  Much like the text, his reading was a bit scattershot: jumping around in time and setting within the narrative arc.  Between excerpts, Johnson flashed a bit of his veteran charm–he’s done this whole reading thing a few times, it seems.  Little interjections about how he goes about preparing for a reading (“I have a recurring nightmare about getting up here and all these little bookmarks are gone,” he said in one pause) gave the evening an intimate feel despite the size of the crowd.

The Q&A session afterward gave a few fans the chance to compliment the master publicly, as well as to clarify a few nagging mysteries about Johnson’s work.  He often disregarded the question (especially when it warranted disregarding) and responded with a semi-related explication of something that interested him. To sum up: the narrator in Jesus’ Son is the same person in all the stories.  He started writing in second grade as a way to win over his loathing teacher. His favorite books: Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Saul Bellow’s Sieze the Day, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the first three novels by Robert Stone.

The book signing queue stretched up the aisle and out the door, and was held up by a couple of self-important jerks who brought every book they own so the poor guy could sign them.  Sorry about that.

In the end, Denis Johnson’s charm in person matches the genius of his output, though the two don’t necessarily correspond.  He’s as outwardly accessible as he is inwardly enigmatic; it’s a fitting paradox for a man who writes so stunningly about the joy and thrill of not being able to make sense of it all.


Were you there? Have a different take on the event?  Chime in on the comments below. Also, check the schedule to the right and be sure you don’t miss the next amazing literary event going on in the Twin Cities! See you around.


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