Starlight on Chicago


Author Denis Johnson opens his Tuesday night reading with a story. "I've really been looking forward to reading this in Chicago," he tells the audience packed in Social Sciences 122, holding up a sheaf of paper. His first play, Hellhound on My Trail, had its Midwest premiere at the Viaduct Theater in Chicago in 2002, he says. One year later, a worker cleaning the stage found a letter a character in the play read aloud.

"You should write more letters from this guy," the worker said. So Johnson, now in his fifties, wrote "The Starlight on Idaho," a short story told through a series of letters from Mark "Cass" Cassandra, in rehab for alcohol addiction, as Johnson was years ago. Intro over, Johnson begins to read.

"I'm considering these hooks in my heart," Cass writes to his father and his grandmother. "Right now I'm just filling my notebook with jazz and waiting for my handwriting to improve."

"Dear Pope John Paul," he writes, "Do you have two first names, or is Paul your last name?"

Johnson has a knack for the one-liner. "Dear Brother," another begins. "I'm sitting on my bed, hugging myself, trapped in the arms of a moron."

Often Johnson interrupts with a personal aside. When Cass's grandmother tells him, "You are surrounded by demons," Johnson confides, "This is my grandmother, by the way. Everything is verbatim."

Cass's rehab center, the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center, used to be a motel. "It's based on this rehab I was in when I was a kid that actually had been a motel," Johnson says. Prostitutes would sit on the bus-stop benches outside, he says, "while we were inside trying to get straightened out."

"I was only in there a short time," he continues. "I bolted, but I didn't stop at the bus stop. I kept going." The author of five novels, five books of poetry, five plays, and the short-story collection Jesus' Son, Johnson did just that.

Jenny Fisher, '07

Photo: Denis Johnson reads in Social Sciences.

February 1, 2007