Denis Johnson’s Kids: On the Short and Gritty Nu-Realism of Susan Steinberg

You read certain books at just the right time. I could go down a list of moments where literature totally clicked with what was going on in my life, what I wanted from my life, or what I was searching for.  Not to go down the entire list, but Denis Johnson’s collection of stories, Jesus’ Son, is on that list. The book that, like for so many other folks I’ve talked to, was my introduction to Johnson’s work; a path that I’ve gladly walked down, enjoying the scenery all along the way.  Exactly why Jesus’ Son resonated with me in the way it did when I first cracked it open sometime around my eighteenth birthday isn’t that clear to me, but I was equally enthralled with Johnson’s prose, and disturbed by how comfortable I felt reading each bleak and lonely paragraph. I remember walking around in a storm, looking up and saying, “I know every raindrop by its name,” and the feeling that any book I’d read after it was going to have so much to measure up to. I remember how this book made me, as a newly minted adult, realize how badly I didn’t want to be anything like any of the characters Johnson wrote about, but how I so badly wanted to know the people because I was young, naïve, and felt that Johnson did such a perfect job of making this other side of America that I wasn’t fully understanding of seem poetic and lovely.

Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle (Graywolf Press) is one of the latest examples of the sort of Johnson-esque writing I’ve read recently. Last year it was the beautiful and savage West of Claire Vaye Watkins absolutely marvelous debut collection, BattlebornBut where the Nevada prostitutes befriending grieving Italians and mid-19th century California gold diggers recalled characters and the haunted west from so much of Johnson’s work, Steinberg’s collection makes me think more of Johnson’s collection that blew my mind so many years ago. The sparse way Steinberg tells her stories; the less says more approach to tell the turbulent tales of people who seem to have little to no hope left, it made me pause after every sentence to compose myself. She opens stories like “Cowboys,” by saying “There are some who say I did not kill my father. Not technically they mean.” Then following up with “But the ones who say I did not kill my father are the ones who want to have sex with me. They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed.” It’s not only grabbing, and calls to mind the sparseness of an Amy Hempel story, or the punch of something Ben Marcus would write, but it also is the perfect example of the catch-22 that the characters in Spectacle are all faced with. There are plane crashes in the book, bad fathers, and in “Underthings,” there is a boyfriend who the narrator swears hit her in the face with a book on accident. There are people, like the narrator in “Universal,” who make excuses for people that don’t deserve them, “They wanted me drugged and sweating, and my brother, I know, could have said to them, Stop.” There are people like the girl in “Underthings” who don’t really have any way out. The narrators, all of them women, are in some sort of trouble; do they have a way out? That’s not what Steinebrg is concerning herself with. Steinberg’s stories don’t try to sugarcoat anything, and that’s what’s so gripping about what’s contained within the pages of Spectacle you genuinely feel bad for these fictional characters, but only because it is so easy to imagine them as real people who are caught up in these bad situations and relationships. On the other hand, Steinberg’s writes so clearly at such a frenetic pace, that you are drawn into reading all of the stories in one sitting.

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