I don’t mean to boast, but I’m pretty good at spending all my money on books I’ll never read. I don’t think I’m alone here, but over the years I’ve almost perfected the routine of wetting my pants over a new author, getting a solid three chapters into their work, getting distracted by the internet, realising I have no money, wetting my pants over a new author, and on and on and on. My ‘active’ reading pile reflects this, getting taller and taller and dustier and more water-stained, like the worst game of Jenga ever.
Moving house recently, it was a little like opening a trap-door and finding the dozens of blind, malnourished puppies I keep adopting but then forgetting to play with. What’re you guys still doing here? I thought, sifting through them. The last time I moved I was stubborn and hopeful and hugely overestimating of my ability to sit still for fifteen minutes. A little older, I knew that it was time to put them in a sack and throw them into the river, or abandon them in a forest for the wolves to eat.
I had a quick and and ugly system: Does the book have an endorsement from Johnny Depp? Out. Did I buy the book to impress a girl or a girl’s dad? Out. Does the back jacket feature the author wearing a knit-vest or jorts? Variable.
Those which I was able to pull from the smoking remains and which I can still look at myself in the mirror and claim to be actively reading are broadly categorised into the following categories:
Books of mainly American short stories collected by other American authors of short stories.
The books that turned up here are largely cut from the same cloth: one-shot anthologies edited or curated by other short story authors. American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenkins, is a tight little collection drawing mainly from the dry new-school of stories of which Carver himself is a paragon. Not surprisingly, it does feature a story by him (haha, oh Ray). The Vintage Anthology of Contemporary American Short Stories is perhaps the main reason why I would vote for its editor, Tobias Wolfe, as President. The collection is a master-class in modern American short-fiction. There’s some overlap with American Short Story Masterpieces (Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates make return appearances), but the stories in Wolfe’s anthology are a little more varied and balanced, and the collection’s composition hold up better a few years on. Highlights are Stephanie Vaughn’s Dog Heaven and Robert Stone’s Helping and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (haha, oh Ray).
Books of short stories by late authors with funny names.
There’s only one book in this list, but boy is he a doosey. Breece D’J Pancake (apostrophe intentional) was a young author of short stories whose brief portfolio, The Collected Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, is the kind of goose-bump inspiring writing you stay awake thinking about. Drawn mainly from stories published in The Atlantic during his depressingly short career, and raking mainly at the heart of Pancake’s native West Virginia, the collection is slow and cold and lonely, and carries depth in every breath it takes. After it was published posthumously, Vonnegut said that Pancake was ‘merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read’, but he seemed to say nice things about everyone, so who knows?
Books about forests, mountains, etc.
Science doesn’t yet have a name for why, around once a year, I’ll go into a cycle of buying and talking about nothing but nature-writing, mountain-writing, or anything with the words ‘base-camp’ or ‘log-cabin’ in general. Currently circulating from my last phase are Thoreau’s classic Walden, and Rodger Deakin’s less classic Wildwoods: A Journey Through Trees, which truly tests the limit of how much you can read about the lengths of each individual board making up the rafters in a cabin. Also somewhere in there is the excellent Granta 101: The New Nature Writing, which explores the modern paradigms of nature writing. Highlight: Kathleen Jamie exploring someone’s colon through a microscope as if she were surveying aerial photographs of landscape.
Books I’m joking myself if I think I’ll ever finish.
The biggest bricks in the pile are Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Philip Meyer’s The Son. Mantel has been in my sights ever since Wolf Hall got the Booker back in 2009, and even a quarter of the way through has redefined my standard of historical fiction. Her characters are subtle and wonderful and their lives are so familiar (and there are just so many prostitutes!). Philip Meyer first kicked my guts in with American Rust and, as someone whose eyes turn to dollar-signs every time he finds good American Western fiction, when I heard he was writing a god damn oil book, I started fanning myself with a silk handkerchief.
Books to re-read.
I’m not a big re-reader, so when I find myself doing it accidentally, I have to sit down and work some stuff out. What occurred to me was—kind of like when people on TV realise, usually with disappointment, that their heavily-flawed partner is fast becoming the main contender for love of their life—that Denis Johnson has somehow become my favourite writer ever. Judging by the fact that his works haven’t left my pile since I first picked up Jesus’ Son a few years ago, I think he may have always been.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing: Jesus’ Son, maybe Johnson’s best known book, is an exercise in brief, revelatory stubs of extraordinary prose becoming the webs of an indefinable narrative. Train Dreams, on the shortlist for the unawarded 2011 Pulitzer, was the kind of book you swallow in an afternoon and measure everything against for months afterwards. His writing deals with addict-morality, revelations, living nightmares. The problem, though, is dependency. There was a time when I couldn’t work if I didn’t first flip through one or two of Johnson’s stories in Jesus’ Son, and considered burning a friendship when I didn’t get a lended copy back soon enough. Now, after just yesterday finishing his first book, 1982’s Angels—another narrative drawing paper-thin around rambling episodes of disparate characters—I’ve launched straight to re-reading 2010’s Tree of Smoke, which takes characters from Angels, and is written as a similar mosaic, but is this time 650 blessed pages, which is extreme for someone who has trouble getting to the end of those messages that tell you when you entered your email password incorrectly.
On paper, Tree of Smoke is sort of the best book I’ve ever read: part spy-novel, part war-novel, part Denis-Johnson’s-character-reunion-good-time-jamboree, part Werner Herzog shitting on about the jungle, part Old Testament treatment of American involvement in Vietnam, etc. In practice it is, at its worst, a slow trawl through the lives of the depressed or drunk or violently insane in a well-worn setting. At best, it’s the kind of writing you want to stuff into a blender because you know you’ll never be able to burn a hole in someone’s heart quite like it does.
And that’s Denis Johnson, a writer you can keep so close for so long that the familiarity irks you, one whose lines you almost share with a stranger on the bus just because they’ve jolted you so much. At least the dependency simplifies things. Forget about choosing the one book for a desert island: the next time I move I’m going to just stuff Jesus’ Son into my back pocket and burn the rest—set a match to it and let the room collapse with me inside it, cackling like a witch.
Jack Vening is a writer and bookseller living in Brisbane. He tutors in the creative writing program at the University of Queensland and in his spare time writes super-rude fan fiction about movies he’s never seen. His short collection, Work for a Man or a Horse, is out through Momentum Books, and you can observe him trying to tweet Fred Durst at all times of the day or night at @LoYonderJack.