Denis the Pirate, and Other News


On the Shelf

Denis Johnson in 2014. Photo: Cindy Johnson.


  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux has confirmed that Denis Johnson is dead at sixty-seven. We’ll celebrate Johnson’s life and work in the days to come. For now, can I recommend a deep cut? It’s “Denis the Pirate,” a kind of children’s story from our Fall 2003 issue in which Johnson imagines “the most bloodthirsty and terrible pirate ever to sail the Caribbean Sea … my own great-great-great-great grandfather, Denis the Pirate. In the early 1700s no man lived who did not fear his name.” In a short foreword, Johnson explained, “I wrote this story for my goddaughter Josephine Messer many years ago, while we were visiting the island of Bequia in the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. She was about five at the time, and I hoped the misadventures of my great-great-great-great-grandfather would amuse her. I changed the location to match our surroundings, but in every other respect the details of my ancestor’s unsavory career are absolutely accurate.”
  • Meanwhile, Jason Horowitz is in Taormina, a hilltop town on the coast of Sicily, where soon President Trump will arrive—and where characters out of Denis Johnson stories seem to be in abundance: “Taormina’s postcard panoramas, its exaggerated Epcot Italian-ness and its reputation as the sun-drenched pleasure dome for reality TV stars, aging playboys and affluent Russians remain intact. It is a spot that is both exclusive and a little hokey … ‘That’s the room Trump will stay in,’ said Dino Papale, a sixty-nine-year-old Sicilian lawyer, promoter and all around bon vivant, as he leaned around his courtyard’s wall and pointed at the adjacent Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo. Mr. Papale, who pulled a red ‘Make America Great Again’ cap over his wavy gray hair, said he met Mr. Trump several years ago and was invited to his inauguration. ‘I’m the president of Trump’s Sicilian fan club,’ said Mr. Papale, who is also first among the many Taormina types for whom the president is a kindred spirit.”

  • And Andrew O’Hagan mulls over the media abyss that is Britain’s Daily Mail: “Americans treat the National Enquirer as if it was a made-up scandal-rag intended for dummies, but the Daily Mail, weirdly, manages to hold its position as a respected newspaper in touch with the main currents of British life. In fact, its sales are down by one million since 2003, and its audience today is drawn mainly to the sleazy accounts of celebrity breakups, wardrobe malfunctions and hidden cellulite that make up its notorious ‘sidebar of shame’ on the web. Politicians have to cozy up to survive its will to defame, and all Tories feel they have to take it seriously as a guide to the instincts of ‘Middle England,’ even though its own staff feel it to be a virus more than a news outfit, a whole universe of rotten, in which a group of bullies get to miscall the world for money. In my weeks of reading the Mail in the wake of [Adrian] Addison’s book, I found no real humor but many hundreds of sneers, which is what passes for humor in that whispery world of frightened men who don’t know how to talk to women and wish they knew bigger words.”