Denis Johnson is dead

May 26th, 2017

When someone close to you ceases to be, there is a numbness that comes on: if they are foundational enough, the fugue time may last years, or hang in like an annex that surprises you some days, for the rest of your time. The love will never be again something that exists between you and that other person. You will forever only talk to them in your head, unanswered.

When it’s someone you didn’t know personally, but whose work or vision became part of who you are, it’s slipperier. But still, the silence of shock. (And like with the loss of someone close you see your own end draw nearer and flutter each few seconds between panic and calm acceptance, neither lasting long enough to form a thought.) But I think that it is incumbent on anyone in my position – a bookstore owner, a reader in the last decades of the 20th century – to try and lay my thoughts down, which only come as I now try to find them.

For that dark decade at the end of the Cold War, when nearly all media was just a one-way flood of lowest common denominator noise, Denis Johnson’s early novels were like communiques on the battlefield of that now lost America. They pulled you in and pulled at you, like the kind of dreams you wake from with your head feeling like freshly plowed earth and with some untraceable confidence gained in that magic chamber. There was ‘Angels’, whose raw beauty seemed to find the hidden truths deep in the distracting mess of the country, to strip its gears naked to watch them go. Years, then ‘Fiskadoro’ – and if you were my age you found that one first, in its Vintage Contemporaries new wave jacket – where he dared to look under the nightmare we all lived in the shadow of, and imagine the Hendrix-worshipping survivors of the nuclear apocalypse, in Key West (renamed Twicetown, for two dud Cuban nukes towering out of the sand). This was long before ‘The Road’ or Atwood’s deep forays into futurism: books then either were well-written and about bric-a-brac, or badly written about the great fear that held us in thrall. ‘The Stars at Noon’ was already out, harder to find, and immediately I was hearing lines from the book I’d just read come out of the stereo speakers in the voice of Kim Gordon (“To the extent that I wore skirts and cheap nylon slips, I’ve gone native. I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell… Does this sound simple? Fuck you! Are you for sale? Does fuck you sound simple enough? This was the only part that turned me on, that he was candy all over… Come on down to the store, you can buy some more, more, more, more…”)

More years, and shocking reportage from the front of the Gulf War, and ‘Resuscitation of a Hanged Man’, which perfectly painted a doomed narrator whose finger seemed to point out of the book and say “you’re next”. Very soon after, Johnson cooked his product down to a slim volume of very short stories that became like samizdat in the recently dissembled Soviet Union, passed hand to hand, read aloud over the radio, the telephone. (“That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”) ‘Jesus’ Son’ became a phenomenon, and a movie, and a kind of pocket dream-life for people who balanced on the high wire edge of drugs and alcoholism, with just enough instinct for self-preservation to avoid jail and the streets. Its success brought out a collection of the free verse he’d written in the years before the first novel, when he’d been a poet.

I had the only copy in a hundred miles of the book that came five years later, ‘Already Dead (A California Gothic)’ when I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference the summer of 1997. Writers put their nose to the ground, have shitty taste in music. The teachers and students who enviously eyed my new Johnson as I sprawled rapt in the heat staring into it were a kind of cognoscenti. The following year I happened to be driving though Austin on the very day he was to read at UT. I called a friend I’d lost track of, who’d been a noble and dear lover, who the person who answered the phone told me was dead. I was in desperate mourning my traveling companion could not alleviate. And Johnson was reading: we went. His ultra-casual style of presentation led him to offer to take requests. I asked for the long poem ‘The Skewbald Horse’ and for the next half hour he read that weird period piece with its sad, existential close, and we poured out into the Texas summer night. (Ten years later, in a bizarre, Johnsonian turn of events, I found out I’d been pranked: my friend hadn’t died at all.) I cannot help reflect that Johnson was then the age that I am now.

And then, there was a falling-off. A dull novel about academia, and then the thickest of his works, a sprawling mess of a Vietnam War prequel to the first novel that won the National Book Award for no other reason than it was high time. But meantime there were plays, that took place in motel rooms at the possible literal end of the world, boiling his trademark rants and word salad into the finest, hair-raising concentrate. And almost as soon as he seemed washed-up, three great short books of the kind that made his reputation: ‘Nobody Move’, ‘Train Dreams’ and ‘The Laughing Monsters’.

Johnson wrote about hard-luck cases with a Catholic’s belief in redemptive suffering. Not a big interview-giver, living in Idaho, the writer was always something of a mystery. He wasn’t, as was rumored, Catholic – or maybe he was! – after finding his books in a gay bookstore in the early 90s I mistakenly believed for years that he was gay. The time he put in, hospitalized for alcoholism time and again through what sounds like a very rambunctious early adulthood, dabbling in heroin and the ‘hard drugs’ laid the carpet for the liver cancer that killed him. Drugs, drink, and writing, music and dance and the plastic arts, are how the most world-wounded get by. There is some wide scale pan on which that early hardcore boozing sits with his sobriety and his books to form some unaccounted equation. The scroll is put away and we file behind him to move out of the world, shining the while as best we can. Such terrific books.

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