Can “Important Writers” ever go wrong? The Atlantic’s B.R. Myers didn’t like Denis Johnson’s recent novel Tree of Smoke. But, he claims, reviewers are so blinded by the critical success of Johnson’s Jesus’ Son that they can’t take a wary eye to his new works.
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.’”