Thursday, January 9, 2014

Reading Rainbow: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson

My last run-in with Denis Johnson in full, novel form was with the 2007 National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke. Personally, I felt like the sprawl engendered all the wrong feelings, and rather than reading like some wild work of genius, it was a mess of a book. It was not a beautiful mess.

His novella Train Dreams was fantastic, and the short story collection Jesus' Son was entirely deserving of the mounds of praise that have been heaped upon it. My experience then with Johnson had been that his pieces that required less extended focus for him were thrilling while the full novel I'd read was an overrated borderline clusterfuck.

Upon finally wading back into the world of the full Denis Johnson novel with Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, my trepidation regarding Denis Johnson the novelist was proven to have been completely unfounded. This time around the reader is treated to a first-person narrative from the point-of-view of the scarred, outsider protagonist, Leonard English, who moves to gay haven Provincetown, Massachusetts, to split time between working at a radio station and helping the station owner, Ray Sands, with his private investigation side business.

Awkward at nearly every turn, unable to connect on any meaningful level with just about everyone with whom he comes into contact, English makes for an unique lead in what is at least primarily a private eye novel. I say "primarily" because we are talking about Denis Johnson here, and Johnson definitely puts his own spin on the conventions of the genre. Leonard watches his subjects from the periphery rather than more directly engaging with them. The case--and life--is happening around him, but much like the reader his involvement is limited to that of the spectator. When Leonard does attempt to take action, it generally doesn't go well for him.

The book itself is really damn good. It sits down in a genre I love and deftly subverts its conventions. Johnson's prose is simultaneously propulsive and impressive, alive and jumping from the page. Despite its humbler aims, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man stands well above his more recent bemedaled tome.

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