Train Dreams, by the American writer Denis Johnson, has been mentioned by many influential writers and reviewers, as one of 2012’s best books, and rightly so. The novella, about the life of a humble man working the railroads in 19th century America, is a vivid and tightly-written portrait of the birth of a great nation and the terrible cost its people paid to get there. It was first published in America in 2001. Johnson isn’t some hot new Brooklynite; he’s written many exquisite novels, two collections of poetry, plays and some insightful essays. And I owe him. Big time.
In my early twenties, as a musician whose every attempt at trying to ‘make it’ had failed, who was drifting from Mac job to Muck job (for a while this involved collecting tampons and condoms that had blown from the top of a rubbish dump) I was, without doubt, in the throes of an existential crisis. Until one day I came across a book in a charity shop with a title from a line in the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin’—it was called Jesus’ Son. Cool, I thought, a bio of Lou Reed, and without even a glance at the blurb, I brought it and hopped on the bus. I got home and realised it had nothing at all to do with Lou Reed; although after reading this opening line, I couldn’t help but carry on:
A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping . . . A Cherokee filled with bourbon . . . A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student . . .
And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri . . .
I steamed through it in a day, and after reading the last paragraph and placing it on the kitchen table, I experienced what can only be described as a minor electric shock fizzing up my neck and across the back of my head. I felt lighter, filled with a sense of hope and I realised—something within me had changed.
Jesus’ Son is a collection of short stories, all narrated by the same character known only as Fuckhead. Fuckhead drifts aimlessly through a post -sixties America of scuzzy motels and sublime landscapes, fuelled by heroin and any other drug he can get hold of along the way. The people he meets are a jumble sale of bar-room orators, ne’er-do-wells, liars and broken souls, and like him are all looking for a little light in the dingy night world that they inhabit. But these stories are far from a depressing read. Within that darkness the prose shimmers and dazzles like the sun on a muddy puddle. Jesus’ Son is beautiful, surreal, hilarious and visionary; it had everything I’d ever wanted from a piece of fiction. Most importantly it was the first book I’d read that spoke about the type of people I knew; the places I’d hung around; about the confusion and sometimes wonder at hurtling through the world in your late twenties without any tools to navigate it.
Denis Johnson words, to misquote Alan Bennett, had reached out from the page and made me feel part of the world. They’d made me realise, what I really wanted to do with my life was write. I started the next day; but the way I was living at the time didn’t leave much room for me to think, let alone sit in a room with a laptop by myself for hours on end. All I managed was paragraph; a dreadful, purple, two-page paragraph that made me ache with self-loathing. I knew something had to change. So, eventually, I stopped drinking and began writing down the scrapings of the novel I’d been telling people about for the last three years. Writing every day, I left my old unstructured world of late nights and booze and gradually became engaged with a new world of shaping sentences and forming ideas.
My debut novel, “27”, is also a book about a lost soul looking for light in the darkness. Jim Vale, aka Jimmy Tyrant, is lead singer with indie one-hit-wonders The Tyrants. After a succession of personal problems and professional failures, at the tender age of twenty seven, Jim decides to end it all, by taking his own life, but he fails at this as well. To avoid being sued for loss of earnings, his manger suggests that he ‘stay dead’ for a while so he can join the ‘27 Club’. The ‘27 Club’ is the name given to the tragic collection of rock stars who all died aged twenty seven; the most famous members being Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and recently Amy Winehouse. If he does this, he may get publicity, sell some records and pay off the bands creditors. “27” is about Jim’s time in hiding, and how, he too, finds himself surrounded by desperate people all wanting to escape their lives to find some kind of redemption. Jim, like Fuckhead eventually finds salvation in an unlikely place. Of course Jim and Fuckhead are two very different people from very different times with two different stories, but one could argue they are both universal figures; mythic even—troubled young men, outsiders, descending into the underworld to find meaning.
Of course, I want people to be entertained by “27”, I want them to be thrilled and moved and experience all the other emotions a good book can give you. But most of all, if it gets in the hands of any of those other Fuckheads out there, I hope that they feel, even just small amount of what I felt after reading Jesus’ Son. It’s best summed up by Johnson himself, in the last story of the book:
All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never even known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.
I wasn’t saved by Jesus; I was saved by Jesus’ Son.
If you want to know more about “27” and Ryan’s other projects go to the website or like the Facebook Page. “27” is published by Sidewinder Books and can be bought on Amazon in paperback or for Kindle. It can also be purchased at Waterstone’s and all other good booksellers.