When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.
Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else. According to The New York Times, which in 2006 sent a questionnaire to writers, editors, and critics, a collection of Johnson’s short stories titled Jesus’ Son is regarded by some as the best American book of the past 25 years. He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer. Denis Johnson is, in short, the sort of novelist whose work one expects to be reviewed on the cover of every prominent newspaper’s book section, as Tree of Smoke was in September. Equally predictable was the reviewers’ implicit injunction that we should ask not what the book can do for us, but what it can do for Johnson’s place in American letters. This much is standard Important Writer treatment, and for all I know, Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Jim Lewis (The New York Times Book Review), and other reviewers consider Johnson worthy of it no matter what he puts out. What I find difficult to believe is that they admire Tree of Smoke. For one thing, their own prose is better than anything in it. For another, they try to lower our expectations for the book even as they cry it up as the main event of the fall publishing season. Lewis, for example, gives a marveling nod at the part in which “two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, ‘My invisible foot hurts.’”