On the novelist’s nightstand – The Property Chronicle
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On the novelist’s nightstand

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A writer introduces his three go-to reads – short stories by JD Salinger and Denis Johnson, and a volume of essays and reviews by Martin Amis

For almost every author, writing fiction is not a commercial proposition. There are a few, household names, who make a good living, but every other novelist can only dream of swapping his or her daily scrabble for the spacious workdays of the big-name brands. Even for authors you know quite well, it is largely a labour of love: self-imposed stress feeding the publishing maw, pay per hour below the minimum wage, the number of copies needing to be sold to pay for a pint barely worth thinking about.

I live in Bristol and combine writing fiction with working as an editor in London three days a week. Reading novels shortens long journeys. I go through about 60 a year, which is probably more than the average commuter but less than the average novelist; this includes slack periods when my own writing reaches a critical stage. There are times in London therefore when I’m not reading a novel or I finish a book earlier than expected and find myself with nothing to read at bedtime. I keep three books beside my bed for such moments, and as the editor of the Property Chronicle asked me to write about “any book”, I thought these were the place to start.

They are: Nine Stories by JD Salinger, published in the UK as For Esmé, with Love and Squalor; Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; and The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. None are novels, though all are by novelists. Nine Stories opens with ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, published in the New Yorker in, I think, 1948 but which reads as if it had been written yesterday. Those who only know Salinger through the genre-creating The Catcher in the Rye will recognise the precociousness of Holden Caulfield in the brittle protagonist of ‘Bananafish’, Seymour Glass, a regular in Salinger short stories. His name – ‘see more glass’ – hints at a transparency the talented but troubled war veteran cannot achieve.

The tale covers a day at the beach. Glass, in crisis, probably suffering from PTSD, has recently married a vapid consumer who remains in their hotel talking on the phone to her mother, who is worrying about the groom. He meanwhile takes a young girl to look for the mythical bananafish. Those familiar with Catcher will know that Salinger has a way with a defining metaphor, and the ending is to die for.

The point about Salinger’s short stories, for example the novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter, or ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’ in Nine Stories, is they are often absurd and laugh-out-loud funny, which is not something the Catcher-only reader would expect.

So too are Denis Johnson’s stories. His title, taken from Lou Reed’s song ‘Heroin’ – “When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son” – gives the game away. This is 11 connected short stories with an unnamed junkie narrator. He struggles with a series of surreal situations, finding himself in a pub one lunchtime with a man about to be sent down for armed robbery, as a hitchhiker in a vehicle that crashes killing the driver, in a car with an unknown deaf mute who needs dropping home but is unable to explain where that is, and so on.

It isn’t only the narrative that compels, though every tale is delightfully off-beam, it is the obliqueness of observation, the turn of phrase. The narrator, primarily as a result of his ingestion of alcohol and proscribed substances, is bewildered by the people he meets and the situations he faces. 

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About TA Cotterell

TA Cotterell’s psychological thriller, What Alice Knew, was Goldsboro Books’ Book of the Month and described in the Times Literary Supplement as “an intriguing, well-constructed and dramatic debut”.

Articles by TA Cotterell

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