A Denis Johnson Primer

Sarah Harper

Denis Johnson doesn't give talks very often, but the writer is coming to the University of Minnesota tonight for a reading and a discussion. "Train Dreams," his 2002 novella that he turned into a novel this past year, was lauded by NPR, the Economist and the New York Times. It's the most recent notch on a long belt of novels, plays and short stories.

It's rare that he's coming out at all, and it's cool that he's coming to the University. So no, you can't really miss this. There's only one question. How are you going to get ready for that Q&A?

You might not have time (or the super-human reading skills) to get through all 600 pages of Johnson's Vietnam War novel, "Tree of Smoke." But here's what you can do before 7:30 p.m.:

Read his poem, "Heat." Start out with this one and then listen to the Rolling Stones and then move onto his other poetry. A fragment of an excerpt : "August, / you're just an erotic hallucination, / just so much feverishly produced kazoo music."

Listen to Tobias Wolff read Johnson's short story, "Emergency." This wild, drug-fueled short story was published in "Jesus' Son." It's become so well-known that you should be able to find it in a few different anthologies or as a PDF online. But I recommend listening to this podcast – Tobias Wolff reads the story out loud to you, and then discusses it with the New Yorker's fiction editor.

Check out the New York Times review of "Train Dreams." Smart money will bet on Johnson reading his latest work tonight, so get a feel for it with this vivid, first-person review by Anthony Doerr.

Watch the 1999 movie, "Jesus' Son." Johnson's collection of short stories was turned into a movie starring Billy Crudup. Jack Black, Holly Hunter and Dennis Hopper show up too. It's streaming on Netflix.

Read his Q&A with the National Book Foundation. Johnson is a man of few words. Notice how he seems like he's not jazzed about discussing himself, or even his work. Can the Gophers get him rambling tonight?