"Denis Johnson--Though I have read Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, it is his story collection, Jesus' Son, that strikes me as the one work by any writer mentioned in this essay that perhaps best represents how artificial my attempted categorizations of writers are. A slender collection of weakly connected stories about a junkie, the narratives seem straightforward enough in the mode of what a friend of mine calls "feckless guy stories"--and that I would add are a genre over-represented in writing workshops--which can be nothing but realist, yet Johnson uses time in sophisticated ways to represent a junkie's tangled consciousness while calling such little attention to his methods that they are all but invisible to the reader unconcerned with formal matters. Roth is the only other American writer whose work I am familiar with who is capable of being formalist while appearing to be realist, only Roth does it in book after book."
I could never have imagined Tree of Smoke emerging from Jesus' Son... and yet it's a continuum. Demands a re-reading of the earlier stories.
On the one hand, a 19th C. novel. An American Tolstoy. So many characters you have to take notes. Plots and subplots and subplots. But a metaphysical novel in the mode of Cormac McCarthy, a Gnostic fallen world, where no one can quite remember what the pre-fallen state was really about.
Molly Bloom's closing monolog , her yes I said yes--Bernonoes' Everything is Grace, Eliot's infolding of the Rose and the Fire...uttered in pure irony in some circle of hell Dante never dreamed of. War scenes as realist as Naked and the Dead, recited from the Drunken Boat.
The banality of the Good...
Your association with Roth is right on target! Something of what I was was getting at with Powers and Hazzard.
An elusive catagory, slippery as it is... don't let go of it!
It's everything that really matters in contemporary fiction.