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American Author Denis Johnson Died Last Week

R. William Attwood By R. William Attwood Published on May 31, 2017
This article was updated on June 5, 2017

Last week the American author Denis Johnson died at the miserably young age of 67. He has often been called a ‘writers’ writer’ and there has been no shortage of writers coming forward to pay tribute to him. Hopefully his death will at least introduce a wider readership to his work.

Despite winning the National Book Award for Tree Of Smoke, his strange and moving novel about the Vietnam War, Johnson belongs to the select band of writers best known for their achievements in the short story form—in Johnson’s case, for his collection Jesus’ Son, published in 1992. Jesus’ Son follows a hapless junkie whom everyone calls ‘Fuckhead’ as he chases his next fix around the American Midwest. Virtually the only thing that can be said for Fuckhead is that he keeps managing not to die. Which is something. Many of his friends and acquaintances do die, usually in circumstances too humiliating to be tragic.

Johnson told The New York Times that ‘almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.’ The writer spent much of his twenties in the grip of addiction, and Jesus’ Son testifies to his first-hand experience of drug abuse by its uncanny mimesis of a wild, unceasing high. Inexplicable gaps open mid-story, time slips underfoot, important events filter through to the reader as if through cotton wool.

But what makes Jesus’ Son such a momentous book to encounter is not its faithful account of desperately bitter experience, so much as the sudden, breathless flights by which it transfigures that experience into something approaching—if never quite attaining—revelation. In his sober years Johnson became a Christian, and although there is nothing conventionally religious about Jesus’ Son, it is a profoundly spiritual work of art.

It opens with a prophecy, a prophecy both terrible and banal:

The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.

Fuckhead’s prophecy comes true. The accident is horrific. Everyone who survives is taken to hospital, and Fuckhead, miraculously unharmed, loiters outside the consultation room while a doctor tells the mother of the family that her husband is dead:

What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

The woman’s transfigurative grief becomes another high for Fuckhead to chase, and that’s all he has to say about the car crash—but it’s not the end of the story. Another episode belongs with the crash, or Fuckhead seems to think it does, even though it happened ‘some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital’:

“How did the room get so white?” I asked.

A beautiful nurse was touching my skin. “These are vitamins,” she said, and drove the needle in.

It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

Johnson’s prose is mesmerising. He is, by his own admission indebted to the Russian short story writer Isaac Babel, and his writing shares with Babel’s the quality of all the best prose which might be described as ‘surreal’ or ‘hallucinatory’: it is extremely precise. Johnson advised young writers to ‘Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail,’ and perhaps this is what imparts such crispness to the Midwestern landscape of Jesus’ Son. Alfalfa dust and snowmelt, rutted asphalt and frame houses are not merely recalled but coaxed onto the page with a greedy tenderness.

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You can probably tell that I’m struggling against the urge to quote whole pages of Jesus’ Son. I’ll limit myself to one last passage, which contains, as so many of its passages do, both the naïve wonder and the cynical humour of Johnson’s writing, both the apocalyptic vision and the Midwestern hominess.

Fuckhead and his friend Georgie have been stumbling around the woods for who knows how long, out of their minds on who knows what combination of stolen pharmaceuticals:

We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and filled with pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”

This episode, like the whole collection, is haunted by the Vietnam War, which provided the setting for Johnson’s best-known novel, Tree of Smoke. It’s like Apocalypse Now if instead of following the river, Coppola’s movie proliferated plots like a whole river delta. Its characters are lost in a world they will never understand, and which only gets more confusing with each misguided and often violent attempt they make to understand it. ‘Our mission parameters are very elastic,’ one of its characters declares. ‘I’d say we’re operating without benefit of any clear parameters at all.’

Johnson ceaselessly reinvented himself as a writer. He set novels in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the railroad-era American West. His page counts ranged from less than a hundred to six-hundred-plus. He was a playwright and a poet. But whatever he wrote, his vision never faltered. He told the truth about suffering and violence as few writers dare to. He’ll be missed.

I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.