“Strangler Bob”
by Denis Johnson
from the October 23, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

This week The New Yorker has presented another must-read. Denis Johnson, who died in May, is one of my favorite writers and was a master of the short story. He started publishing fiction in The New Yorker in 1988, the most recent (and only other one during the lifetime of this site) was “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” from March 2014. “Strangler Bob” is one of the five stories that will feature in the forthcoming collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories, which was, so Random House says, finished just before Johnson died. The other stories are “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” “The Starlight on Idaho,” “Triumph over the Grave,” and “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” The collection is going to be released in the U.S. in January and in the U.K. in February. Personally, I cannot wait.

So, let’s go and hopefully enjoy this piece of Denis Johnson’s last work. The first paragraph is promising:

You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and, blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom, gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue. The following Monday, I pled guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious mischief, reduced from felony vehicular theft and resisting arrest because—well, because all this occurs on another planet, the planet of Thanksgiving, 1967. I was eighteen and hadn’t been in too much trouble. I was sentenced to forty-one days.

I hope everyone will feel welcome to share thoughts below!

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By | 2017-10-16T11:53:10+00:00 October 16th, 2017|Categories: Denis Johnson, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Lee Monks October 16, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    Well, Tessa Hadley last week and Johnson this. Two of my favourite exponents of the short form (neither usually as good as novelists). I’m going to save this for when the collection is published and read them all at once…

  2. David October 18, 2017 at 10:52 pm

    I very much enjoyed reading this story. There are a number of events that happen, but it is not really a story about plot. There was no single character who stood out as particularly special or memorable, but Johnson does a very good job of developing a number of distinct characters quite clearly in such a short amount of space. The tone and style of the writing suggests a noir atmosphere at times, and reminded me of the writing of Jim Thompson. I thought that maybe he could have done a little more with the prediction that three men would become killers and how each of them eventually did, but in very different ways. But even in the more minimal form it was still a sharp observation.
    .
    I had not read anything by Johnson previously After reading this story he won’t jump to the top of my “must read” list, but he is definitely on it. I look forward to reading more of his work.

  3. Matt October 19, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Startled and thrilled to realize midway that this story is a return to the world of “Jesus’ Son,” as we find out from the appearance of the erratic, psychopathic Dundun. Whether the narrator is the same person is unknowable, but he may well be. Possibly it’s even an outtake from that work, rather than a new story. Either way I’m glad we have it.

  4. Paul October 22, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    I am somewhat familiar with the author’s work. I think I read Jesus’s son about 23 years ago. I read his short story “Emergency” and I also attended a live reading by him at the University of Texas at Austin around the same time.

    This story is of great interest because it reads as if parts of it might be autobiographical, and the author died recently (The author did have a drugs problem apparently, but I don’t know whether he was ever in jail).

    The story quite simply doesn’t work. It reads like a rushed first draft which needed an editor’s prodding. (All this is of course quite understandable if he died while writing the story).

    The problem? Key details of the narrator’s life (for example the blood donations to earn money), which should be a focal point of the story, are suddenly jammed into the end of the story with no development On the other hand, irrelevant details about the physical appearances of some of the characters are dwelt on at too much length. It isn’t paced properly, and would never have been published as is, if it weren’t for its historical value as being one of the final discovered pieces of an acclaimed writer, containing autobiographical content.

    Paul Epstein

  5. Greg November 2, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Thanks Paul for putting this story in its proper context.

    I will always love the author’s masterpiece: “Tree of Smoke”……some scenes have kept returning to me ten years later.

  6. Ken November 16, 2017 at 5:11 am

    I have to agree with Paul. I feel this is either something left unfinished OR maybe an unpublished earlier story from the Jesus Son period. Either way, it felt unedited, unstructured and was not a great way to pay tribute to such a talented author. The story from a few years ago the New Yorker published, which is the title story to the upcoming collection, is so much better and fully formed. I also thought Tree of Smoke was a really interesting book. This really felt like a draft. There are interesting stories within it and I was even o.k. with the rushed ending, but still probably something that should’ve been left for Johnson scholars not put forward as representative of his work.

  7. Greg November 17, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks Ken for your balanced appraisal.

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